Sarah Canary, by Karen Joy Fowler
8/10, wonderfully written frontier tale of a mysterious woman who is different things to different people
Karen Joy Fowler is gaining some fame this year thanks to the cinematization of “The Jane Austen Book Club,” which I have not read. I did read “Sister Noon,” and was impressed enough to pick up “Sarah Canary” when I found it in a used bookstore.
The book starts with the titular character (though she isn’t called that yet) wandering into a Chinese laborer’s camp in Washington at the end of the 19th century. She doesn’t talk, only makes animal sounds and laughs, and doesn’t seem to have the ability or interest to communicate. Chin, a young man in the camp, is given the responsibility of escorting the woman to safety.
Sarah Canary picks up her name in a lunatic asylum, where we meet more of a colorful cast of characters, including B.J., a young inmate whose tentative attempts to theorize penis envy to the scoffing doctor are very amusing. He, too, becomes fascinated with Sarah Canary and escapes in order to follow her and Chin.
Through frontier Washington, Sarah Canary wanders, collecting more fascinated people in her wake. To everyone, she is something different: to Chin, she is a spirit alternately meant to teach him or punish him; to B.J., she is just a woman with troubles like his own; to the freakshow owner, she is an attraction; to the feminist, she is a cause.
Fowler writes with a transparent love of her characters and the world they inhabit, and an eye for amusingly ridiculous situations. Although the story wanders between many of the different characters, it’s a very satisfying read, and with a lovely use of language. The world of the frontier is an interesting one, in which the struggle between society’s laws and individual expression is much more open than it is in our modern urban areas. Sarah Canary, wandering through this world as a mute embodiment of individuality who doesn’t seem to reject society’s laws so much as live completely apart from them, serves as a catalyst for people who are similarly trying to find that balance. I’m reminded of the old fairy tale in which some object was enchanted so that everyone who tried to steal it was stuck to it, and anyone who tried to help became stuck to them, resulting in a long chain of people being dragged around by this object’s owner. So is Sarah Canary a magical object attracting a chain of people behind her, and their stories make this book a delightful, engaging read.