By Laura Moriarty
I can’t think of a more enjoyable way to get a social history lesson on the 1920s than reading Laura Moriarty’s 2012 novel, “The Chaperone.” Moriarty brings alive that decade while telling a story that is impossible to put down.
Before starting the book, Moriarty had read about Louise Brooks, the famously irreverent silent screen actress — a fellow Kansan— and learned that when the beautiful young woman was 15 and still unknown, she was accepted into a prestigious New York dance school in the summer of 1922. Louise’s parents agreed to let her leave Wichita and go to the big city only if she had a chaperone. This bit of history gave Moriarty the idea of imagining a life story for the woman charged with keeping the headstrong teen in line.
The fictional chaperone is 36-year-old Cora Carlisle, a Wichita housewife whose twin boys are away for the summer and whose husband is a busy attorney. After a brief interview she is engaged by the Brooks family who assure her that because of Louise’s passion for dance, she will behave. “Our little lion should be docile as a lamb,” Louise’s mother said.
The reality is, of course, much different. Louise is not just a pretty face, but also a well-read, quick-thinking manipulator. Cora once peeks at a passage of Schopenhauer that the girl has underlined — “Whoever attaches a lot of value to the opinions of others pays them too much honor.” Louise seems unreachable.
The banter between the two mirrors the personal battles that were being waged around the country in the Roaring Twenties when a new generation of women was tossing out the old rules, cutting their hair, raising their skirts and, gasp, even driving automobiles. Moriarty is generous with details of the period but occasionally just lists them in a stilted way.
The heart of the book though is in Cora’s story. Although the matron tells friends and neighbors she has never been out of Kansas, we learn that she carries a secret that connects her to New York. I won’t reveal more but simply say I was astounded at the dimensions of an initiative in that era that dramatically affected more than 200,000 children.
What Cora learns and experiences that summer causes her to re-examine her behavior, her values and her marriage. As it turns out, it is the chaperone that has the life-changing summer experience. I was not surprised to learn that Moriarty’s delightful book is soon to be a film.