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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).
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.
Posted June 14, 2006
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted September 30, 2004
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
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.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted December 9, 2008
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 KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.