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Sister Noon

Average Rating 2.5
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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 21, 2001


    Hugo Award winning author Karen Joy Fowler ('Sarah Canary', 1991) blends fact and fantasy in her bewitching third novel, 'Sister Noon.' Imagery, minute historical data, and dazzling prose abound in this story set against San Francisco's Gilded Age. We meet 40-year-old spinster Lizzie Hayes, volunteer treasurer of the Ladies Relief Home, familiarly called the Brown Ark, a residential facility for homeless children made comfortable with donated furnishings representing 'the worst taste of several decades.' Lizzie had been a 'passive and biddable' child beneath whose 'tractable surface lay romance and rebellion.' She was now 'hard to dissuade and hard to intimidate.' Persistent when it came to raising funds for the Home, Lizzie lived in a dangerous place, a 'city propelled in equal parts by drunken abuse and sober recompense,' where there were six men to every woman and 700 gambling/watering holes. Nonetheless, Lizzie is advised by Mary Ellen 'Mammy' Pleasant that she can do anything she pleases, 'You don't have to be the same person your whole life.' This is apt tutelage from one who knows as that may be precisely what Mrs. Pleasant did. An enigmatic woman in life as well as in fiction, sometimes revered, at other times vilified, she has been called the 'Mother of Civil Rights in California' and the 'Fabulous Negro Madam.' Born a Georgia slave, she cleverly amassed a fortune which she dedicated to favored philanthropic causes. As this author imagines in 'Sister Noon,' Lizzie's life is changed forever when Mrs. Pleasant appears at the Home and asks for her. Although Lizzie has never spoken with the 70-year-old woman, she knew Mrs. Pleasant worked as a housekeeper although she 'was rich as a railroad magnate's widow.' It was said the infamous woman 'had a small green snake tattooed in a curl around one breast.....she was a voodoo queen.....she would, for a price, make a man die of love.' Mrs. Pleasant has come to deliver 5-year-old orphan Jenny Ijub to the care of the home. Jenny is a mysterious child described as not quite truthful with her claims of once owning a pony, a parrot, and a silver cup. As time passes she is more and more given to restless nights, and her assertions grow more fanciful - her father 'had been as rich as a sultan,' she had seen fairies, ghosts, angels, and she didn't believe in God. When Jenny creates a ruckus at an outing, she claims that a man in green pants has tried to kidnap her. Yet it is the little girl who becomes the catalyst for Lizzie's rebellion against the constrictive society in which she was raised. 'Sister Noon' is a superbly realized recreation of an 1850s San Franciso peopled by quirky, smart characters. Ms. Fowler, an author with practiced eye and arresting pen, has constructed a tale that absorbs, amuses, and sometimes skewers the complacent.

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  • Posted December 9, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    superb historical character study

    In 1890 San Francisco, forty-year old spinster Lizzie Hayes, daughter of a wealthy man, has made few friends even though she belongs to two churches and has been a member of the Ladies Relief Home for a decade. Her father is outraged by Lizzie¿s rejection of every male he dumps on her. Though independent and feisty within the taut rules of high society, overall Lizzie remains the obedient child in spite of her age. <P> When Ellen Mary Pleasant meets Lizzie the world changes for the latter. The worldly Mrs. Pleasant has been involved in many unacceptable practices, at least that is the distasteful rumors about her. Some say she is a voodoo queen though she works as a charity leader. Other claim she is a retired prostitute who laundered her ill-gained money to fund Brown¿s raid on Harper¿s Ferry. Regardless, Lizzie sees Mrs. Pleasant as a role model, having lived life to the fullest. Mrs. Pleasant encourages Lizzie to be all that she can be and damn societal dictates that corset the real Lizzie. With Mrs. Pleasant as a guide and five-year old Jenny as an angel in need, Lizzie begins to take charge of her life. <P> ¿To thine own self be true¿ is the central theme of a superb historical character study that focuses on the lives of San Franciscans during the Naughty Nineties. The story line uses humor, pathos, and tidbits of Americana to provide a full picture of society especially that of women. Fans of Americana fiction will relish SISTER NOON and seek Karen Joy Fowler¿s previous historical fictions (see SARAH CANARY). <P>Harriet Klausner

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