Laura Moriarty's latest novel starts out as light summer reading perfect for the beach, staycations, and long waits in the airport. But just when you've settled in on the train to New York with the girl who would grow up to be 1920s silent-film-actress Louise "Lulu" Brooks and her minder, The Chaperone takes a sharp detour to tackle some fairly meaty issues. The book, from which Moriarty reads at A Great Good Place for Books (6120 LaSalle Ave., Oakland) on Monday, June 25, is not your ordinary work of historical fiction.
Brooks remains famous today for iconic photos of her blunt-cut bangs and signature bob: She was the "face of a generation." Noted for breaking all the good-girl rules, she was "pretty condescending, arrogant, wonderful, honest, authentic, self-destructive," Moriarty reveals, and she had even more going on beneath the surface. Reading her biography, Moriarty's imagination lingered on a particular sentence: "And when she was fifteen in 1922, she and a 36-year old-chaperone went to New York." Who was this daring woman? A morally upright matron who'd fought on the suffrage front for freedoms her fifteen-year-old charge was entirely ungrateful for, Moriarty imagined; and the focus of the book shifted from Lulu to her chaperone, Cora Carlisle. Drawn to write about "intergenerational tension" by creating the fictional life behind Brooks' real-life chaperone, Moriarty had plenty of opportunity for exploration. "I really wanted to inhabit this person's world the way she would see it," she explained. "There's prohibition, the KKK was strong in the 1920s .... Things that we would so find strange today were normal." Witnessing Cora navigate New York and her own changing attitudes — toward appropriate dress and social conduct, racial issues, politics, and even same-sex relationships — is part of the novel's page-turning appeal.
And while Lulu is busy ditching her chaperone to flirt with unmarried men, Cora reveals her own reason for making the trip. Sent to Kansas as part of the Orphan Train exodus of children from New York's Annie-like orphanages to wholesome Midwestern homes, Cora is determined to discover links to her past. We are accustomed to looking back on old-timey photos showing upright, happy, nuclear families, but "because there was so much repression, you had no idea what arrangements people really made, behind closed doors," Moriarty said.
Already at work on her next piece of historical fiction, Moriarty finds inspiration teaching a course at the University of Kansas on historical heroines. "Historical fiction takes you into a different culture and you can see it so clearly because you're standing on the outside. And what it does for me is it makes me really aware of the constructs of our own time," she said. When not done properly, you'll get a character with modern-day values plopped down in the past, and the reader's natural inclination is to root for them because they share the same values. "I find it more satisfying to have somebody who really does live in their time and does what is normal to them, but it is tricky to get the reader to identify." No worries with Cora the Chaperone, a sympathetic heroine who works out her own satisfying ending. 7 p.m., free. 510-339-8210 or GreatGoodPlace.Indiebound.com