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When black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway camp in the Washington territories in 1873, Chin Ah Kin is ordered by his uncle to escort "the ugliest woman he could imagine" away. Far away. But Chin soon becomes the follower. In the first of many such instances, they are separated, both resurfacing some days later at an insane asylum. Chin has run afoul of the law and Sarah has been committed for observation. Their escape from the asylum in the company of another inmate sets into motion a series of ...
When black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway camp in the Washington territories in 1873, Chin Ah Kin is ordered by his uncle to escort "the ugliest woman he could imagine" away. Far away. But Chin soon becomes the follower. In the first of many such instances, they are separated, both resurfacing some days later at an insane asylum. Chin has run afoul of the law and Sarah has been committed for observation. Their escape from the asylum in the company of another inmate sets into motion a series of adventures and misadventures that are at once hilarious, deeply moving, and downright terrifying.
"An extraordinarily strong and accomplished first novel" (The New York Times Book Review). In the winter of 1873, a white woman mysteriously appears in a Chinese railway camp. Ordered by his uncle to return her to the white world, Chin Ah Kin embarks on a journey that is both heroic and mystical in its search for right and good. "Utterly original."--Chicago Tribune.
The creek sucked itself over rocks. The trees sawed in the wind. Waterweeds rubbed together, singing with friction like insects. Chin was a small ant, picking his way over the melodic body of the world. Her syllables began to connect again into whole nonsensical sentences, at first quietly and then gratingly. Her voice rose and followed after Chin. His queue bounced in the small of his back with each step. He thought about opium. He thought about the great silences of opium and the mysteries of the great silences opening like peeled fruit so that you could swallow them, segment by segment, until the mysteries and the silences were all inside you. He must never take opium again; he had recognized this the very first time he tried it. Chin craved tranquillity and clarity too much. Opium was a danger to a man like him. If only he had some opium now. Panta opium. Dangerously fine.
"Seattle," he said to her once. "Did you come from Seattle?" Her shoes were big and black and buttoned, heeled and caked with mud. She was limping a little; clearly she had already walked a long way. He slowed his own pace, in annoyance, in pity. They should have stayed in camp overnight and begun this journey in the morning. She should have washed her feet and wrapped them in rags dipped in water and just a little pulverized horny toad skin. They would never, never make Steilacoom before dark; she was already limping and he would spend a cold night with the indifferent, almost immortal trees and a woman who was, at best, very ugly and, at worst, some sort of demon spirit.
She smiled at him and her nose hooked toward her mouth. She hummed her answer.Her skin--he noticed this suddenly--was poreless and polished. It shone like Four Flowers porcelain. It was beautiful. He was a little bit frightened. Why was he seeing this? Why hadn't he seen it before? Why was he seeing it now? Chin faced forward and walked again.
Perhaps three hours later they arrived at a lake. Chin paused beside it hesitantly. He had expected to follow the creek all the way into Steilacoom. He didn't know the area well, saw no path, had only a vague sense that the Sound lay ahead of them. There should be no lake. He had come too far. They would need to cross the creek now and head directly west. Chin hated to leave the creek behind. He could lose his bearings so easily in the woods.
The woman shouldered past him and slid down the lake bank. The trees on the bank grew at a slant. Chin saw a stain on the back of her black skirt that might have been blood; he didn't want to think about the implications of this. The stain did not look recent. She found a large, flat stone exactly one step into the water and dropped to her knees on it; her skirt collapsed around her like a shriveling flower. The stain vanished into a fold. Leaning forward, the woman thrust her face into the water where the creek joined the lake. The water parted around her mouth. The tips of her short hair floated and she drank with her tongue like a dog. When she sat up, her face was white where the icy creek had touched it. The excess water drained off her teeth.
She began to remove her shoes. Chin did not want to see her feet. "No," he told her hastily, sliding down into the creek after her. "We can't stop. We don't have time to stop." There was no room for him on the room beside her. He stood in the creek itself where it was shallow and only washed over the toes of his boots. Leaning down, he forced her foot, halfway out of her shoe, back inside. He tried to fasten the buttons. An instrument was required; he knew this; he had seen such instruments, although he had certainly never used one. He had, in fact, never put a shoe on anyone's foot but his own before. Even with the sort of shoe he was accustomed to, he would have been awkward. All his movements had to be done backward, like braiding your hair in a mirror. She kicked at him once, playfully, and then did not resist. Chin was able to fasten the top two buttons. The rest defeated him. He disguised this by knocking the shoe lightly against the stone to loosen some of the dirt. Her expression was
alarmingly coquettish. He dropped her foot. "We want to be in Steilacoom before it gets dark. A few miles still to go. Please," he said. "Please. You come now."
She came liquidly to her feet and stood on the rock with her hands out, forcing him to lift her over the water. Her dress was damp beneath her arms where his hands touched her. He wiped his palms on his pants.
Looking down at them, from the mud wall of the creek, were two Indian children. Chin hardly saw them. They were there, black-haired and black-eyed and solemn, and then they were gone. Chin's legs buckled beneath him and he fell on his knees. Water slid inside his boots. His heart refused to return to his chest. Indians, it thumped. In-di-ans. The woman, who was looking at him and seeing nothing, lifted her voice in rapture.
Some years back the Indians along the Columbia River had murdered the first Chinese they saw simply because they did not recognize them as a viable natural category. They were not Indian. They were not white. They were like one-winged birds; they were wrong. They were dead. The Caucasians, according to the second Chief Steilacoom, had brought disease and war; they had killed Indians just to demonstrate the versatility of the bowie knife. They had injected a tartar emetic into their watermelons to teach the Indians not to steal, and very effectively, too. Still, the Caucasians clearly worked to a higher purpose. They had come to bring potatoes to the Indians. Much could be forgiven them. The second Chief Steilacoom weighed more than two hundred pounds. What had the Chinese brought? Nothing they were willing to share.
There had been another ugly incident when the Indians back in the eastern part of the state had driven a camp of Chinese miners over a cliff, herding them up the slope and into the air. They were stars against the sky; they were stones against the earth. Chin wanted to see no more Indians. He wanted this badly. His pants were wet up to the knees. They would not dry by nightfall; they would never dry in this weather; they would make a cold night that much colder. The crazy woman had no blanket and might die of exposure if she was not inside after the sun went down. Who, exactly, would the immortals hold responsible for that? Chin took hold of the woman's wrist, but she resisted. She was looking out over the lake at some apparition of her own. Chin saw it, too. There was a dark shadow under the water, the size and shape of a woman. He held his breath. A spray of water appeared for a moment, just at the waterline, and was instantly followed by a black snout. Water rolled away and the entire head s
lid into the air, hairless, with a long nose and whiskers. He let his breath out. A seal stared at them. Its body twisted beneath the motionless face so that the seal now floated on its back, fanning the water into patterned waves with its flippers. Chin leaned down, scooping some of the lake water into his hand to taste it. There was no salt. He separated his fingers and let it drip through. The woman called to the seal. Her voice was happy, urgent. The seal stared at her impassively and then sank away. The ground at their feet trembled slightly. The waters of the lake rocked against the bank in waves.
There was no time for safe, easy routes. Put your faith in your fate. See how it comes to you. Walk toward it. Walk away. See how it comes.
They headed for the Sound and the landscape changed; the trees grew thinner and there were fewer of them. Suddenly it was hard to see. Not only had the sun vanished, but as they got closer to the ocean, there were patches of fog. One moment Chin would be there with the trees and the woman in black, the next he would be walking by himself in the clouds. He could have taken some comfort in his own blindness--if he couldn't see, at least he also couldn't be seen--but the woman continued her keening. Her speech was vowel-laden, one running into the next running into the next, like the noise at a hog-slaughtering. The continual din obscured other noises so Chin was deaf as well as blind, but instead of cloaking them like the fog, the woman's words exposed them. Chin could not be tranquil and accept his fate with this annoying vocal accompaniment. The thought of Indians panicked him; he could not control it. The noise was driving him mad. He felt the trees leaning in to listen to it. "Be quiet," Chin beg
ged her. "Please be quiet," but she wasn't.
Chin stepped inside a drifting patch of fog and stopped. The world was shapeless and moved. The woman in black did not stop. See your fate come. See how it stumbles into you from behind, how it pushes you forward. Chin felt the woman's teeth jar against his shoulder. Her mouth was loose, her jaw was slack. Her vowels continued. He turned around and hit her with his open hand. "Be quiet," he said and hit her again, across the mouth, slapping it closed. He was surprised and he was sorry to be hitting her; it was just the noise he couldn't stand anymore. It was profoundly possible that she was just a crazy old woman, after all. That he was a fool to be taking her through the forest when railway work awaited every Chinese man in Tenino. That he would pay a fool's price.
Chin forced his hand shut and held it with the other hand against his chest. "I'm sorry," he said to the woman. "So sorry." She had moved away from him so he couldn't see her in the fog and she was quiet now, but he thought he could still hear her, a fruity kind of breathing that suggested tears. The dress rustled slightly as though she might be shaking.
"Sorry," Chin said again. "Forgive me." He felt a wave of self-pity. "I am so far from home," he told her. "You can't know what that is like." She couldn't know how hard his life was, how it tried him. In none of the languages he spoke was there a word as vivid as his loneliness, and she wouldn't even understand the pale approximations he could offer. He stepped in her direction, but she wasn't there. He didn't hear her at all now, put out his hands and groped through handfuls of cloud and found nothing. Whirling around, he felt through the fog in the other direction. His hand hit stone, a large, flat slab, sticking up from the ground with letters carved into it. The fog dispersed so that he could read the words:
Chas M. McDaniel
Born in Iowa, 1834
and died at the
HANDS OF VIOLENCE
Jan. 22, 1870
aged 36 years.
1. Who is Sarah Canary?
2. One of the themes of Sarah Canary is how perception shapes reality. Henry James once said "one cannot truly escape one's background--where one comes from has everything to do with one's point of view." Hence, Chin, Adelaide, B. J., and Harold have vastly different views when it comes to the identity of Sarah Canary. Given this, why do you think Karen Joy Fowler leaves the question of Sarah Canary's identity a mystery?
3. How important is Sarah Canary's identity?
4. Why do you think Fowler has intertwined her narrative with short chapters of actual events from the nineteenth century?
5. Why do you think Fowler begins many chapters with quotes from Emily Dickinson?
6. Sarah Canary is set in the Washington Territory in the 1870s, just after the American Civil War. From a historical and geographic standpoint, what is the significance of this setting for Sarah Canary?
7. Chin talks about the one-winged bird and Burke talks about nature loving symmetry. Is it also human nature to condemn something that is different or irregular? Why?
8. What does Tom mean when he says, "The earth talks to us, but we don't speak its language. Why should it not mean something just because you don'tunderstand?"
9. What is the author's attitude toward Charles Darwin, Sigmund Freud, and science in general?
10. The last chapter of the book reports recent news events--Jim Bakker's fall from grace, the massacre in Tiananmen Square, President Reagan's politically incorrect speech about the plight of the American Indian, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times reporting evidence of a Chinese wild man, headlines in the Weekly World News of a wounded Civil War soldier being found alive, and a report in the Worldwide Gazette of a "Flea Circus Horror." Why do you think the author ends the book this way?
11. What is the significance of Burke's little mermaid?
12. The main characters in Sarah Canary--a Chinese railway worker, a suffragist, an escaped mental patient, and a huckster--are all considered outcasts of the age. Who are their modern equivalents and how do their experiences differ from those of people who have been marginalized in the past?
13. One critic remarked that "Fowler has an uncompromising and informed political vision." How would you describe the author's political position and how does it shape the story?
14. Consider the following excerpt: "Sanity is a delicate concept, lunacy only slightly less so. Over the last few centuries, more and more of those phenomena once believed to belong to God have been assigned to the authority of the psychoanalyst instead. Some of the saints can be diagnosed in retrospect as epileptics. St. Theresa was almost certainly an hysteric. St. Ida of Lorraine seems to have suffered from perceptional insanity. She only thought her body was amplified to monstrous proportions in her desire to be acceptable to God.... The prognosis for such cases in our own age is excellent; saintliness can often be completely cured."
15. In the end, what do each of the characters gain as a result of their journey in pursuit of Sarah Canary? Are the characters better off for their experience?
16. Why is the story of Sarah Canary narrated by someone of the late twentieth century?
17. One critic remarked that the characters in Sarah Canary are "larger than life." Are the characters in the book realistic? Which character did you relate to most? Whose perception of Sarah Canary is closest to your own?
18. One reviewer wrote, "The author's message... is that at its core, America hasn't changed one whit since those rugged, lawless pioneer days [that serve as the setting for Sarah Canary]." Do you agree?
19. Karen Joy Fowler is a cocreator of the James Tiptree Jr. Memorial Award, which is presented, in her words, "to a short story or novel that explores or expands our understanding of gender... to remind the field of its own importance in the continual struggle to re-imagine more livable sexual roles for ourselves." Does Sarah Canary accomplish this goal? If so, how?
Posted October 5, 2004
Fowler is one of the few writers out there right now with a truly unique mind. Sarah Canary is unlike anything else I've read. Strange, beautiful, and fabulous.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.