Sister Noon

( 5 )


Lizzie Hayes, a member of the San Francisco elite, is a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies Relief and Protection Society Home, or "The Brown Ark". All she needs is the spark that will liberate her from the ruling conventions. When the wealthy and well-connected, but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark, Lizzie is drawn to her. It is the beautiful, but mysterious Mary Ellen, an outcast among the women of the elite because of her notorious past...

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Sister Noon

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Lizzie Hayes, a member of the San Francisco elite, is a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies Relief and Protection Society Home, or "The Brown Ark". All she needs is the spark that will liberate her from the ruling conventions. When the wealthy and well-connected, but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark, Lizzie is drawn to her. It is the beautiful, but mysterious Mary Ellen, an outcast among the women of the elite because of her notorious past and her involvement in voodoo, who will eventually hold the key to unlocking Lizzie's rebellious nature.

Loosely based in historical fact, Sister Noon is a wryly funny, playfully mysterious, and totally subversive novel from this "fine writer" whose "language dazzles" (San Francisco Chronicle).

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A playful, mysterious, highly imaginative narrative set in the San Francisco of the 1890's...Robust, sly, witty, elegant, unexpected and never, ever, boring." —Margot Livesey, The New York Times Book Review

"Sister Noon is funny, lyrical, spooky, inspired . . . A work of enchanting rumination-and one of the year's best reads." —The Seattle Times

"Fowler's prose is full of shimmering melancholy, and a ruminative irony that brings her characters and their world alive in the most unexpected ways...a dazzling book." —Jonathan Lethem
...a lush,stylistically daring,brilliantly realized portrait of a vanished era and an extraordinary woman...
San Francisco Chronicle
An astonishing voice,at once lyric and ironic,satiric and nostalgic.
The New York Times Book Review
Robust,sly witty,elegant,unexpected and never ever boring.
Seattle Times
A work of enchanting rumination — and one of the year's best reads.
Jonathan Lethem
Karen Joy Fowler's prose is full of shimmering melancholy, and a ruminative irony...A dazzling book.
Stewart O'Nan
Even in the midst of what seems a normal world, there's always something just off-kilter and interesting.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Subtle undercurrents of race and class propel this intriguing novel laden with historic fact and fancy, mystery, voodoo, frontier rough-and-tumble and turn-of-the-century social conventions. The characters rooted in this rich, exotic loam are an unforgettable crop. In 1890s San Francisco, Lizzie Hayes is a 40-year-old spinster, the well-born volunteer treasurer of the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, familiarly called the Brown Ark because of its "shipwrecked, random air, like something the tides had left. In this respect, it matched the fortunes of most of its residents." One day, the notorious, fascinating and possibly dangerous Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant arrives at the door of the Brown Ark with a girl, Jenny Ijub, a disturbing and winsome child, perhaps four years old, rumored to be the daughter of a mother buried at sea and an unknown father, though Lizzie suspects he could be rich and thus a valuable resource for the Home. Every character's tale is complicated, unpredictable and often engrossing. Mrs. Pleasant, for instance, is a former slave (or is she?), wealthy as a railroad baron, charitable, a witch and a legendary cook. Still beautiful at 70, she is a purported dealer in underground markets where sex, opium and even murder are for sale. Fowler (Sarah Canary; The Sweetheart Season) moves her principals through time and space seamlessly and gracefully, and exquisitely renders San Francisco as it grows from outpost to city. The temporal shifts and the unreliability of some characters' histories may be temporarily disorienting, but readers who bear with Fowler will be handsomely rewarded. (May 7) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In Gilded Age-era San Francisco, fortyish spinster Lizzie Hayes is by any measure a good woman. She busies herself with worthy, conservative projects, especially her role as volunteer treasurer and fund-raiser for the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home. She does what is expected when it is expected. None in her circle suspects that a risk-taking spirit hides just beneath the surface. But when Lizzie crosses paths with the influential and notorious Mrs. Mary Ellen "Mammy" Pleasant, opportunities for intrigue, passion, and subversion abound, and Lizzie plunges in with enthusiasm. This witty novel is a deft blend of historical fact, urban myth, social satire, and romance. Fans of E.L. Doctorow and Fowler's previous fiction (Sara Canary, The Sweetheart Season, and Black Glass) will enjoy. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 1/01.] Starr E. Smith, Fairfax Cty. P.L., VA Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
In Fowler's latest (The Sweetheart Season, 1996, etc.), a shady lady from New Orleans crosses paths with a respectable spinster in Gilded Age San Francisco. Rumor has it that Mrs. Pleasant passed for white when she arrived during the 1849 Gold Rush. A reputed voodoo queen, she was a beauty then and she's rich now, even though she still works as a housekeeper for her first California lover, the mysterious Mr. Bell. Her specialty: arranging parties at which wealthy men meet wayward women and keeping track of the inevitable results: illegitimate children, many of whom she simply sells to the Chinese tongs. At least, those are the whispers Lizzie Hayes has heard. Fat, 40ish, and unmarried, Lizzie devotes her days to good works and her nights to romantic fantasies. She helps run the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home for Girls, and it's here that she meets Mrs. Pleasant, with unhappy waif Jenny Ijub clinging to the old lady's skirts. Mrs. Pleasant drops subtle hints regarding a wealthy father who may well be persuaded to support this wrong-side-of-the-blanket offspring. The Home's officials won't approve, but the organization is perennially short of funds, so Lizzie reluctantly agrees to take in Jenny. She has nothing against the sullen child, and she's drawn to Mrs. Pleasant, whose herbal concoctions cure her migraines. Lizzie even pays a call on Mr. Bell's faintly disreputable but luxurious household and his languorous young wife, a visit that fires her romantic imagination in more than ways than one. But her sense of duty wins out: when a strange, shabbily dressed man visits the Home and asks to adopt Jenny, Lizzie acts on instinct and hides the girl. It's not longbefore the man reveals the secret of Jenny's parentage, then demands cash to keep his silence. Lizzie's ultimate decision will surprise everyone. An inventive, elegantly constructed, ably written peek into the secret lives of women from a historical perspective.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780452283282
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 5/28/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 1,405,995
  • Product dimensions: 5.32 (w) x 7.97 (h) x 0.73 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Joy Fowler

Karen Joy Fowler, A PEN/Faulkner and Dublin IMPAC nominee, is the author of Sarah Canary, The Sweetheart Season, Black Glass: Short Fictions, and Sister Noon.


A genre such as science fiction, with its deeply committed fans and otherworldly subject matter, tends to stand apart from the rest of the book world. So when one writer manages to push the boundaries and achieve success with both sci-fi and mainstream fiction readers, it's a feat that signals she's worth paying attention to.

In terms of subject matter, Karen Joy Fowler is all over the map. Her first novel, 1991's Sarah Canary, is the story of the enigmatic title character, set in the Washington Territory in 1873. A Chinese railway worker's attempt to escort Sarah back to the insane asylum he believes she came from turns into more than he bargained for. Fowler weaves race and women's rights into the story, and it could be another historical novel -- except for a detail Fowler talks about in a 2004 interview. "I think for science fiction readers, it's pretty obvious that Sarah Canary is an alien," Fowler says. Yet other readers are dumbfounded by this news, seeing no sign of it. For her part, Fowler refuses to make a declaration either way.

Sarah Canary was followed in 1996 by The Sweetheart Season, a novel about a 1950s women's baseball league that earned comparisons to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegon works; and the 2001 novel Sister Noon, which Fowler called "a sort of secret history of San Francisco." For all three novels, critics lauded Fowler for her originality and compelling storytelling as she infused her books with elements of fantasy and well-researched history.

In 2004, Fowler released her first contemporary novel, The Jane Austen Book Club. It dealt with five women and one man reading six of Austen's novels over a six-month period, and earned still more praise for Fowler. The New York Times called the novel shrewd and funny; The Washington Post said, "It's... hard to explain quite why The Jane Austen Book Club is so wonderful. But that it is wonderful will soon be widely recognized, indeed, a truth universally acknowledged." Though Fowler clearly wrote the book with Austen fans in mind – she too loves the English author of classics such as Pride and Prejudice -- knowledge of Austen's works is not a prerequisite for enjoyment.

Readers who want to learn more about Fowler's sci-fi side should also seek out her short story collections. Black Glass (1999) is not a strictly sci-fi affair, but it is probably the most readily available; her Web site offers a useful bibliography of stories she has published in various collections and sci-fi journals, including the Nebula Award-winning "What I Didn't See."

Fowler also continues to be involved with science fiction as a co-founder of the James Tiptree, Jr. Award, designed to honor "science fiction or fantasy that expands or explores our understanding of gender." The award has spawned two anthologies, which Fowler has taken part in editing.

Whether or not Fowler moves further in the direction of mainstream contemporary fiction, she clearly has the flexibility and skill as a writer to retain fans no matter what. Her "category" as a writer may be fluid, but it doesn't seem to make a difference to readers who discover her unique, absorbing stories and get wrapped up in them.

Good To Know

In our interview, Fowler shared some fun facts about herself with us:

"The first thing I ever wanted to be was a dog breeder. Instead I've had a succession of eccentric pound rescues. My favorite was a Keeshond Shepherd mix, named Tamara Press after the Russian shot-putter. Tamara went through college with me, was there when I married, when I had children. She was like Nana in Peter Pan; we were a team. I'm too permissive to deal with spaniels or hounds, as it turns out. Not that I haven't had them, just that I lose the alpha advantage."

"I have cats, too. But I can't talk about them. They don't like it."

"I'm not afraid of spiders or snakes, at least not the California varieties. But I can't watch scary movies. That is, I can watch them, but I can't sleep after, so mostly I don't. Unless I'm tricked. I mention no names. You know who you are."

"I loved the television show The Night Stalker when it was on. Also The Greatest American Hero. And I Spy. And recently Buffy the Vampire Slayer, except for the final year."

"I do the crossword puzzle in the Nation every week. I don't like other crossword puzzles, only that one. It takes me two days on average."

"I take yoga classes. I eat sushi. I walk the dog. I spend way too much time on email. Mostly I read."

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

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

By the 1890s, San Francisco was an entirely different city from the one Mrs. Radford had left behind. The streets were paved. The sand was landscaped. Cable cars ran up and down Nob Hill. The Railroad Kings were old or dead, and also the Bonanza Kings, and also the Lawyer Kings. Society had arrived and settled, its standards strictly maintained by Ned "I would rather see my sister dead than waltzing" Greenway. Fashionable women belonged to the Conservative Set, the Fast Set, the Smart Set, the Serious Set, the Very Late at Night Set, or the highly respectable Dead Slow Set.

    There were still many more men than women in the city. This imbalance resulted in a high percentage of unrequited passions. Afflicted men consoled themselves with horse racing, graft, and most frequently, liquor. Any woman whose nerves did not compel her to depend on Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound (alcohol, dandelion, chamomile, and licorice) or Jayne's Carminative Balm (alcohol and opium) or Dover's Powder (opium and ipecac) could count on the advantage of sobriety in her dealings with men. The destabilizing effects of widespread heartache combined with widespread drunkenness were somewhat alleviated by the rigging of local elections.

    The city was propelled in equal parts by drunken abuse and sober recompense. In those days every steamer that docked in San Francisco Bay was fitted with a large box. Each box was the same—pinewood, a sizable slot edged with brass, and the words "Give to the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home" burned in a circle about it. After the wreck ofthe SS Rio de Janeiro, one of these boxes was found floating past Alcatraz Island, and miraculously, the money was still inside. When levered open, the box contained rubles and yen, lire and pesos, all shuffled together like cards.

    Successive treasurers for the Society counted out coins stamped with the profiles of queens they couldn't name and birds they'd never seen. Some of the coins were worn so thin there was no picture at all, just a polished disk with no clue remaining as to its history or origin. Occasionally during rough seas someone would donate a holy medallion, usually Saint Christopher. One box held a single amethyst earring with a small drop pearl.

    It was still charity, it was still begging, but it bore the semblance of adventure.

    Lizzie Hayes wore one of the more puzzling coins on a chain around her neck, so whenever they looked at her, the people of San Francisco would be reminded that she needed their money. The coin was imprinted with a mermaid curled into a circle, her hair so wide and wild it netted the tip of her own tail. If anyone asked, Lizzie said it was the currency of Atlantis.

    Lizzie Hayes had been a volunteer for the Ladies' Relief Home for almost ten years, its treasurer for three. She had few intimate friends, but attended two churches, Grace Church and St. Luke's Episcopal, which was good for her soul and also for fund-raising. In 1890 she was a spinster who had just seen her fortieth birthday.

    She was working in the cupola one day in January, sorting through a box of donated books, when one of the older girls came to tell her Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant was at the door. "the front door," the girl said. "She'd like to speak to you."

    Culling books was surprisingly dirty work, and Lizzie could feel a layer of grit on her hands and face. She wiped herself with her apron and went downstairs at once. She'd never spoken with Mrs. Pleasant, never been in the same room with her, although two years earlier she'd waited on an overloaded streetcar while the driver made an unscheduled stop so that Mrs. Pleasant could ride. Mrs. Pleasant walked the half-block to the car, and it seemed to Lizzie that she had walked as slowly as possible. She had given the driver an enormous, showy tip.

    Lizzie had also seen Mrs. Pleasant on occasion in her opulent Brewster buggy with its matched horses from the Stanford stables. Mrs. Pleasant dressed like a servant, but she had her own driver in green livery and a top hat, and also her own footman to attend her.

    If she hadn't ever seen her, Lizzie would still have recognized Mrs. Pleasant's face. It was one of the most famous in the city, appearing often in editorial cartoons, particularly in the Wasp. (Although actually the last drawing had not used her face. Instead, a black crow had peered out from underneath Mrs. Pleasant's habitual bonnet.)

    "Now, I never cared a feather's weight for public opinion," Mrs. Pleasant had been once quoted as saying, "for it's the ghostliest thing I ever did see." It was fortunate she thought so. Here are just a few of the things people said about Mary Ellen Pleasant:

    She'd buried three husbands before she turned forty, and in her sixties had still been the secret mistress of prominent and powerful men. At seventy years of age, she'd looked no older than fifty.

    She had a small green snake tattooed in a curl around one breast.

    She could restore the luster to pearls by wearing them.

    Although she worked as Thomas Bell's housekeeper, she was as rich as a railroad magnate's widow. Some of the city's wealthiest men came to her for financial advice. Thomas Bell owed his entire fortune to her.

    She was an angel of charity. She had donated five thousand dollars of her own money to aid the victims of yellow fever during the epidemic in New Orleans. When she got to heaven, she would soon have the blessed organized and sending cups of cool water to the sinners below.

    She practiced voodoo and had once sunk a boat full of silver with a curse.

    She was a voodoo queen and the colored in San Francisco both worshipped and feared her. She could start and stop pregnancies; she would, for a price, make a man die of love.

    She trafficked in prostitution and had a number of special white protégées with whom her relationships were irregular, intimate, and possibly sapphic. She was responsible for all of poor Sarah Althea Hill Sharon Terry's mischiefs and misfortunes.

    She ran a home for unwed mothers and secretly sold the infant girls to the Chinese tongs.

    She was the best cook in San Francisco.

    Here is what people said about Lizzie Hayes:

    She would have married William Fletcher if she could have got him.

    No one had asked Mrs. Pleasant into the parlor. Lizzie found her standing just inside the heavy oak door under the portrait of philanthropist Horace Hawes, with his brooding Lincolnesque looks. No one had offered to take her wrap, a bright purple shawl, which she nevertheless had removed and carried over one arm.

    Lizzie Hayes had not kept Mrs. Pleasant waiting, but neither had she taken off her work apron. Mrs. Pleasant was better dressed. She wore a skirt of polished black alpaca, a shirtwaist with a white collar, gold gypsy hoops through her ears, and her usual outdated Quaker bonnet, purple with a wide brim. She noticed the apron at once; Lizzie saw her famous mismated eyes, one blue, one brown, flicker over it, but her facial expression did not change. Her skin was finely wrinkled, like crushed silk, and she smelled of lavender.

    There were no courteous preliminaries. "I've brought you a girl," Mrs. Pleasant said. She'd come to California forty years earlier with the miners, but never lost the southern syrup of her vowels. "Named Jenny Ijub. She's just off a boat from Panama. Her mother took sick on the voyage and was buried at sea. When I ask how old she is, she holds up all five fingers. Quiet little thing. She doesn't seem to know her father."

    One of her hands rested on the little girl's hair. Mrs. Pleasant dipped her head as she talked, so her face was hidden by the bonnet brim. "I have my friends at the docks. I'm known to care for such cases." As her face vanished, her voice grew softer, more confiding. She knew how to make white people comfortable.

     She knew how to make them uncomfortable. Where had she really gotten the child? Lizzie felt the contrast between them. Mrs. Pleasant was tall, elegant, and spotless. Lizzie was short, dusty, fat as a toad. She was a person who rumpled, and not a person who rumpled attractively.

    She cleared her throat. "We have a waiting list." Lizzie would have said this to anyone. It was the simple truth. So many in need. "And I'd have to be certain of her age. She's quite small. We don't take children under four years."

    "I'll have to find somewhere else, then." Mrs. Pleasant smiled down at Lizzie. It was an understanding smile. Seventy-some years old and Mrs. Pleasant still had all her own splendid teeth. She stooped a little and aimed her smile farther down. "Don't you worry, Jenny. We'll find someone who wants you."

    Lizzie looked for the first time at the girl. She was dark-haired and sallow-skinned. She had sand on her shoes and stockings, it was impossible to get to the Home without picking up sand, but was otherwise as clean as could be. Neatly and simply dressed. Hatless, though someone—Mrs. Pleasant?—had woven a bright bit of red ribbon into her hair. Her cheeks were flushed as if she were too warm, or embarrassed. She did not look up, but Lizzie imagined that if she could see the girl's eyes they would be large and tragic. She held her back stiffly; you could deduce the eyes from that.

    Lizzie hated saying no to anyone about anything. Saying no, however you disguised it, was a confession of your own limitations. Not only was it unhelpful, it was galling. She reached out and touched Jenny's arm. "I have some discretion. Since she really has no one. We'll find a bed somehow. Would you like to stay with us, Jenny?"

    Jenny made no response. Her eyes were still lowered; she had one knuckle firmly hooked behind her front teeth, and her spare hand wrapped around the cloth of Mrs. Pleasant's skirt. When Mrs. Pleasant was ready to leave, Jenny's fingers would have to be pried apart.

    "That's lovely, then," said Mrs. Pleasant. "Now I know she'll have the best of care."

    "We might even find a family to take her. Be better if she had a bit of sparkle. Don't put your fingers in your mouth, dear," Lizzie said. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a silver bell. "This is how we call Matron," she told Jenny. She rang the bell twice. "We have two Jennys already, but they are both much older than you. So we must call you Little Jenny. Shall we do that?"

    The bell sounded very loud. Jenny's fingers twisted inside Mrs. Pleasant's skirt. Mrs. Pleasant knelt. She pulled a violet-hemmed handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped Jenny's mouth with it. She had the face of a grandmother. "Listen," she said. "You must be brave now. Remember that I'm your friend. I'll send you a present soon so you'll see I don't forget you, either." Mrs. Pleasant said these things quietly, intimately. It was not for the matron to hear, but she arrived just in time to do so.

    "I hope your present is something that can be shared," the matron told Jenny as she took her away. "If you have things the others don't, you can't expect them not to mind."

    The matron was a fifty-year-old woman named Nell Harris. She had come to the Home as a charity case; she had stayed on as an employee. She had soft-cooked features and a shifting seascape for a body. Her bosom lay on the swell of her stomach, rising and falling dramatically with her breath. Her most defining characteristic was that no one had ever made a good first impression on her.

    She took Jenny down to the kitchen and offered her a large slice of wholesome bread. "Mrs. Pleasant gave me cake," Jenny told her. The kitchen counters were piled with dishes, half clean, half not. Two girls in aprons were washing; another was drying. That one smiled at Jenny and flicked her dishrag. The air was wet and warm and smelled of pork grease.

    "And that's all it takes to make you think she's nice as pie. She gave you away pretty fast, didn't she?" Nell said.

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Reading Group Guide

The fiction of Karen Joy Fowler has been hailed as "powerfully imagined and delightfully readable" (The Washington Post). The New York Times praises her "willingness to take detours, her unapologetic delight in the odd historical fact, her shadowy humor, and the elegant unruliness of her language." Now this critically acclaimed writer introduces readers to Lizzie Hayes, a remarkable heroine born into a wild, dazzling, unrestrained and uninhibited age that could not have existed at any other time in our nation's history.

San Francisco during the Gilded Age is a city bursting at the seams—a thrilling, electric, somewhat unsavory place of newly paved streets and cable cars running up and down Nob Hill, of unbridled egos and flamboyant ambition, of gentility, gossip, and greed... where great fortunes and dynasties are being built that will outlast many of the city's colorful, eccentric inhabitants.

A spinster just past forty, Lizzie is at once a part of and separate from, the city's dazzling vitality and ostentatious elitism. A devout, fiercely intelligent woman given to ironic self-reflection and filled with hidden passions, Lizzie spends her days as a volunteer and treasurer for the Ladies' Relief Home, a refuge for the poor and displaced commonly called the Brown Ark. It is here that Mary Ellen Pleasant, the city's most scandalous benefactress, suddenly appears one day to deposit a little girl named Jenny. This brief visit becomes the catalyst for Lizzie's gradual transformation. She has never met anyone like Mrs. Pleasant. Or Madame Christophe, as she was known in her native New Orleans, where she was born into slavery. Or Mrs. Ellen Smith, as she called herself in 1852, a strikingly beautiful widow who would become as famous for her affairs, marriages, shocking behavior, and rumored voodoo powers as for her stunningly mismatched eyes. Lizzie, who is fat, unlovely, and unloved, is intrigued and excited by this fascinating woman who opens a window onto a world Lizzie has only read about, a world as much of the imagination and senses as it is of one firmly grounded in reality. For, as Mrs. Pleasant tells her, "You can do anything you want. You don't have to be the same person your whole life."

Karen Joy Fowler's most masterful achievement, Sister Noon, is a lush, stylistically daring, brilliantly realized portrait of a vanished era and an extraordinary woman that will shimmer and haunt readers long after the final page is turned.


Karen Joy Fowler is the author of two previous novels, Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season, both New York Times Notable Books, as well as Black Glass, a short story collection. She was nominated for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award for Sister Noon. She lives in Northern California.


"An astonishing voice, at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell stories that engage and enchant."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A playful, mysterious, highly imagined narrative set in the San Francisco of the 1890's... Robust, sly, witty, elegant, unexpected and never ever boring."
The New York Times Book Review

"Sister Noon is funny, lyrical, spooky, inspired... A work of enchanting rumination—and one of the year's best reads."
The Seattle Times

"Fowler has a voice like no other, lyrical, shrewd and addictive, with a quiet deadpan humor that underlies almost every sentence."

"A playful literary mystery."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"The novel unfolds in mysterious and, at times, supernatural ways."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"In Sister Noon, Fowler thrillingly recreates a lost world... No contemporary writer creates characters more appealing, or examines them with greater acuity and forgiveness than she does."
Michael Chabon, bestselling author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

"Reading Sister Noon is like staring at early photographs until the eyes begin to shine and your head is filled with voices which urge you to recall that these vanished lives, and your own, are stranger than you allow. A dazzling book."
Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Motherless Brooklyn


  • In the Prelude, "Mrs. Smith" says that "life is loss." What do you think she means by this? Is she speaking about more than the death of her husband, who she might never have really loved? How does your opinion of this character and her statement change once you discover her "real" identity as Mary Ellen Pleasant?
  • Who and what does Mary Ellen Pleasant represent in the novel?
  • How would you describe Mrs. Pleasant's relationship with Lizzie?
  • Lizzie is described as "short, dusty, fat as a toad." How does the inner Lizzie differ from the outer woman? How does Lizzie fit into the world around her?
  • "An easy person to underestimate," Lizzie is also fiercely protective of the children in her care and single-minded of purpose once she decides to take action. How does Mrs. Pleasant become the catalyst for Lizzie's transformation?
  • How does Lizzie respond to the news about Jenny's true parentage? Is her reaction indicative of the "old" or "new" Lizzie?
  • Throughout the book, Teresa Bell remains a shadowy, ethereal character. And yet she plays a crucial role in the narrative's unfolding. What does she symbolize in the book?
  • Lizzie has an epiphany of sorts in her scene with Mr. Finney on p. 317. Has she at last become the liberated woman she always dreamed of becoming but never believed she actually would? How do her behavior and actions change after this "perfect day she would always remember?"
  • What is the significance of the séance wherein Lizzie gets to finally tell off her dead mother? Is this part of her "liberation?"
  • How does Lizzie feel about children? She is the caretaker and nurturer of many, yet has none of her own. On p. 125 we learn that Lizzie "didn't like children particularly, but they went to her heart." And on p. 244, she muses that "all children are precious to God." How does her behavior bear this out? Does her attitude toward them change during the course of the story? How does her discovery about Jenny affect these feelings?
  • What is the significance of "Sister Noon" and "Sister Night?" Which is Lizzie, and why?
  • What role does Ti Wong play in the story? How does he change after his near-fatal bout with diphtheria?
  • In the prelude to the Prelude, Mary Ellen Pleasant is quoted as saying, "Words were invented so that lies could be told." Why do you think she uses the word "lies" and not "stories," which has a far less negative and precise connotation? Is this what she believes her entire life to be, one brilliant invention after another?
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Sort by: Showing all of 5 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 14, 2006

    What was this about?

    i kept reading thinking that something was going to happen or there was going to be some point. Never happend. The back of the book totally tricks reading into thinking the main character is going to take some huge personal journey and get into exciting things. Nope. Not here.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 30, 2004

    what story?

    Did I miss something? I found the characters totally flat and the descriptions of life in San Francisco bleak and boring. I love recommending/lending books, but this one is off my shelf and out the door.

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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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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 31, 2015

    No text was provided for this review.

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