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Sarah Canary
     

Sarah Canary

4.7 3
by Karen Joy Fowler
 

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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

Overview

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.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Why does homesick Chinese railway worker Chin Ah Kin risk his life countless times in fevered pursuit of ``the ugliest woman he could imagine?'' Is Sarah Canary, the mute, misshapen object of Chin's confused affections, a vampire, an apparition, a shape-shifter, a feral child, a murderess? These are just a few of the intriguing questions that will keep readers turning the pages of this buoyant first novel set in and around the Washington territories in 1873. When Sarah Canary wanders into Chin's railway camp, his uncle orders him to escort her away. Far away. In the first of many such instances, the well-intentioned Chin misplaces her. When both resurface 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--BJ, a wonderfully drawn ``sane'' madman--sets into motion a series of adventures and misadventures at turns hilarious, deeply moving and downright terrifying. A picaresque romp that takes a good, long look into the human heart, this is a stunning debut. 35,000 first printing; $35,000 ad/promo; author tour. (Oct.)
Library Journal
Chin Ah Kin is the reluctant hero of this search across Washington Territory for Sarah Canary. The year is 1873, one that holds promise for the emancipation of women, yet things couldn't be worse for Sarah. Chin first encounters her when she suddenly appears on the periphery of his camp. Because Sarah only speaks nonsense, Chin decides she is crazy and sets off with her to an asylum in Stellacoom. But because of her inability to communicate, Sarah soon becomes separated from Chin. Without her to justify his presence in the wilderness, Chin becomes the scapegoat for all the evil deeds around him. Fowler skillfully arranges characters and plot against a backdrop of American history, which becomes inspiration for her satiric wit. Although her unsentimental view is refreshing, Fowler overstates her case in the final chapter, for the reader already sees the unflattering reflection of racism and sexism in contemporary America. Recommended.-- Janet W. Reit, Univ. of Vermont Lib., Burlington
Chicago Tribune
An utterly original, groundbreaking book...A work of art. -- Chicago Tribune
Kirkus Reviews
Fowler's remarkable debut recounts the 19-century adventures of a mysterious wild woman—and of the Chinese railway worker, insane-asylum escapee, suffragette, and exhibiter of circus freaks who pursue her through the Washington Territory—in this baroque tale of mystery, cruelty, and wonder as bombastically excessive as Barnum and Bailey itself. No one in Chin Ah Kin's half-hidden campsite in Washington Territory wants to acknowledge the presence of the dirty, shockingly bad-looking white woman who hovers at the edge of their forest clearing. White women mean trouble to Chinese railworkers, some of whom are being killed for sport in the larger California cities. When the woman begins warbling, singing, and babbling loudly, though, Chin's uncle orders him to escort the woman back to the nearby insane asylum from which she obviously came. Chin obeys, and so begins a wild-goose chase that leads the dutiful Chinaman through terrifying forests, into confinement at the asylum, into jail (where he must hang an Indian to buy his own freedom), and through countless other escapades he never would have imagined or wished for. Who is the mysterious Sarah Canary, so called because of her disturbing, nonsensical warbling? Each new encounter brings a fresh invention of Sarah's past: an exhibiter of freaks claims that Sarah was raised by wolves in Alaska. Adelaide Dixon, solitary and opinionated suffragette, claims that she's on the lam after murdering her abusive husband. To Chin, Sarah is an ever-elusive mystery, captivating in her very unresponsiveness to other mortals and in her determination to remain free. A fascinating romp, in which actual events are so cleverly intertwined withthe author's fanciful inventions that the reader grows unsure which to disbelieve.

From the Publisher
“Powerfully imagined...Drop everything and follow Sarah Canary.... Humor and horror, history and myth dance cheek to cheek in this Jack London meets L. Frank Baum world.... Here is a work that manages to be at the same time (and often in the same sentence) dark and deep and fun.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Unforgettable... Incandescent…Bewitching.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Unexpectedly moving.” —The New Yorker

“A playful romp through the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last century, mixing poetry and newspaper reports into a wild yarn.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Sarah Canary is certainly an enchanted and enchanting narrative, and Karen Fowler has found her way from the details of what we take to be our history, our past, to the legend that is our true present. Her powers of evocation of character and consequence, her storytelling gifts, are exhilarating, and she has given us, at the beginning of her writing life, a work with the suggestive authority—and the evanescent, haunting power—of myth.” —W.S. Merwin

“Remarkable…A larger than life, magical realist Western that is funny, mysterious, and harrowing by turns…Its imaginative virtuosity and stylistic resources announce Karen Joy Fowler as a major writer.” —New York Newsday

“Part adventure story, part history lesson, part flight of marvelous fancy, Sarah Canary is among the very best novels I have read this year.” —San Diego Tribune

“Powerful…Touching…Hilarious…Fowler interweaves historical fact and fiction, creating almost real world, somewhat along the lines of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” —Locus

“[A] quirky, original tale…marvelously framed in the events and scenery of the Northwest frontier.” —San Antonio Express-News

“Remarkable…A fascinating romp, in which actual events are so cleverly intertwined with the author’s fanciful inventions that the reader grows unsure which to disbelieve.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780698159297
Publisher:
Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date:
08/03/2004
Sold by:
Penguin Group
Format:
NOOK Book
Pages:
304
Sales rank:
343,641
File size:
1 MB
Age Range:
18 Years

Read an Excerpt


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.


The fog was back. Chin felt something unseen brush against his hand. It was sticky and ghostlike. He jerked away, stumbled. Something or someone caught at his foot and threw him against the stone. Chin bit through his cheek as he hit. Blood drained into his throat. Putting his arms around the marker, he slid slowly down it to earth and on the way he passed through the gate into unconsciousness.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher
“Powerfully imagined...Drop everything and follow Sarah Canary.... Humor and horror, history and myth dance cheek to cheek in this Jack London meets L. Frank Baum world.... Here is a work that manages to be at the same time (and often in the same sentence) dark and deep and fun.” —The Washington Post Book World

“Unforgettable... Incandescent…Bewitching.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review

“Unexpectedly moving.” —The New Yorker

“A playful romp through the Pacific Northwest at the end of the last century, mixing poetry and newspaper reports into a wild yarn.” —San Francisco Chronicle

Sarah Canary is certainly an enchanted and enchanting narrative, and Karen Fowler has found her way from the details of what we take to be our history, our past, to the legend that is our true present. Her powers of evocation of character and consequence, her storytelling gifts, are exhilarating, and she has given us, at the beginning of her writing life, a work with the suggestive authority—and the evanescent, haunting power—of myth.” —W.S. Merwin

“Remarkable…A larger than life, magical realist Western that is funny, mysterious, and harrowing by turns…Its imaginative virtuosity and stylistic resources announce Karen Joy Fowler as a major writer.” —New York Newsday

“Part adventure story, part history lesson, part flight of marvelous fancy, Sarah Canary is among the very best novels I have read this year.” —San Diego Tribune

“Powerful…Touching…Hilarious…Fowler interweaves historical fact and fiction, creating almost real world, somewhat along the lines of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime.” —Locus

“[A] quirky, original tale…marvelously framed in the events and scenery of the Northwest frontier.” —San Antonio Express-News

“Remarkable…A fascinating romp, in which actual events are so cleverly intertwined with the author’s fanciful inventions that the reader grows unsure which to disbelieve.” —Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

Meet the Author

Karen Joy Fowler, A PEN/Faulkner and Dublin IMPAC nominee, is the author of We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season, Wit's End, Black Glass: Short Fictions, and Sister Noon.

Brief Biography

Hometown:
Davis, California
Date of Birth:
February 7, 1950
Place of Birth:
Bloomington, Indiana
Education:
B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

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Sarah Canary 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I padded into the cave and drank from the moonpool, falling into a deep sleep. "Cinderleaf," I heard a whisper. I snapped my head up, seeing many ranks of Starclan warriors. "I am honored to be here," I meowed, dipping my head. I aw Moonstar pad forward. "Moonstar!" I gasped. <p> "Yes, it is I," she meowed. "My life to give you is that of decision-making. The clan will rely on it. Some decisions will be difficult, but they must be made for the sake of the clan," she meowed and touched her nose to my shoulder. I felt the agony of making difficult decisions, and was rocking on my paws when the second cat padded forward. <p> The large tom introduced himself as Whitestorm. "I give you this life for endless courage in battle. Battles may have sad endings, but you must have courage that you will win." The rest of .y lives wrre the love of a mate, mentoring, tireless energy, faith, perserverance, a quick mind, and finally the gift of speaking my mind. Moonstar stepped forward once more and lifted her muzle. "We hail you by your new name, Cinderstar! Welcome Vinderstar!" She yowled. "Cinderstar! Cinderstar!" Starclan chanted. I woke up and padded back to the clan.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.