The chaperone

Wichita, Kansas, 1922. Warren Harding is President, Prohibition is the law of the land, and many prominent citizens belong to the Ku Klux Klan. Cora Carlisle, at 36, is envied by her friends for her marriage to handsome, successful attorney Alan, her twin sons who are going off to college soon, and her large, comfortable home on a quiet suburban street. So why does Cora jump at the chance to chaperone the 15-year-old daughter of Myra Brooks, a casual acquaintance, to a New York dance class run by the famous Ruth St. Denis?

Cora tells Myra and others that she wants to see some Broadway shows, but this is just the latest in a series of deceptions that she has long practiced on a daily basis. One of these deceptions involves her childhood: Everyone knows that Cora grew up on a nearby farm, but only Alan is aware that she spent several years in a Catholic orphanage in New York and came to Kansas at age six as part of the “orphan train” program, in which unwanted children were placed with small-town and farm families in the Midwest. Cora was lucky enough to be adopted by a couple who loved her, but she has always wondered about her birth parents and sees this trip as a chance to do some investigating. What she doesn’t plan on is the complicated relationship she develops with the young woman she is chaperoning.

In a few years Louise Brooks will be an international celebrity, but in 1922 she is just a strikingly attractive and very opinionated Kansas teenager—sophisticated in her literary and artistic tastes, brutally honest in her contempt for Cora’s conventional views, and harboring some not-so-pleasant secrets of her own. In the few weeks they spend together, Louise unwittingly causes Cora to question many of the unthinking assumptions she has made about her own life and the world around her. Meanwhile, Cora uses her solitary hours while Louise is in class to pay a visit to the New York Home for Friendless Girls, where she spent three memorable years back in the 1890s. What she finds there will change the rest of her life.

Author Laura Moriarty has based the framework of her novel on actual events in the early life of Louise Brooks, but Cora Carlisle is entirely her own invention. It is through Cora’s eyes that we are given numerous fascinating details about America in the 1920s—ranging from the first Broadway musical to boast an all-black cast and creative team (and an integrated audience) to the discomfort and inconvenience of wearing a corset. The “orphan train” flashback is particularly memorable in its depiction of frightened children being sent across the country and given away to anyone who wants them—no interviews or background investigations required.

Some readers may feel that Cora is able to resolve her personal problems a little too neatly (albeit with continuing deceptions). But all in all, this is a beautifully told tale of a woman who discovers that it is not too late to transform her life—and to change the world a bit in the process.