When black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a Chinese labor 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.
“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
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.36(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.69(d)|
|Age Range:||18 - 17 Years|
About the Author
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
Read an Excerpt
The years after the American Civil War were characterized by excess, ornamented by cults and corruptions. Calamity Jane rode her horse through Indian country, standing on her head, her tangled hair loose along the horse's sides. Chang and Eng, P. T. Barnum's Siamese twins, hunted boar, fathered children, and drank like the gentlemen they were. The Fox sisters held seances and secretly cracked their toe knuckles to dissemble communication from the beyond. T. P. James, a psychic/mechanic in Vermont, channeled Charles Dickens, allowing him to complete his final book, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, posthumously. Big Jim Kinelly plotted the kidnap of Abraham Lincoln's body. Brigham Young married and Victoria Woodhull told everyone who was sleeping with whom. Football and lawn tennis had their first incarnations.
In 1871, strange events took place in the skies over the central and northern United States. Eyewitness accounts allude to spectacular meteor showers, ghostly lights, and, on the ground, a number of fires whose origins were unknown and whose behavior was, in some ways, disquietingly unfirelike.
In 1872, the residents of the asylum for the insane in Steilacoom, Washington, were thrown out of their beds by earthquakes resulting from volcanic activity in the Cascade Mountains. The event was so profound it cured three of the patients instantly. These cures were responsible for a brief and faddish detour in the care of the mentally ill known as shake treatments.
Across an ocean, in China, the Manchus prepared for the Year of the Rooster and the end of the female Regency. The power of the Dowager Empress shrank. The influence of the place eunuchs grew. Neither had much energy to spare for the Celestials dispersed abroad.
In 1873, in the fir forests below Tacoma, Washington, a white woman with short black hair and a torn black dress stumbled into a Chinese railway worker's camp.
Chapter One: The Year of the Rooster
To this World she returned.
But with a tinge of that--
A compound manner,
As a Sod
Espoused a Violet,
That chiefer to the Skies
Than to Himself, allied,
Dwelt hesitating, half of Dust
And half of Day, the Bride.
-Emily Dickinson, 1864
The railway workers were traveling from Seattle to Tenino on foot and had stopped, midday, to rest. They hadn't really made a camp, just a circle of baskets and blankets around a circle of damp dirt that Chin Ah Kin had cleared with his hands prior to building a fire. Chin was briefly alone, although in the distance to his left he could hear the companionable sounds of two men urinating.
It was midwinter, the tail end of the Year of the Monkey and just before noon. There was no snow, but the ground was wet with the morning's frost and the trees dripped. Underfoot, the fir needles were soggy and refused to snap when stepped upon, which might explain why Chin Ah Kin did not hear the woman approach. It was a mystery. She was just there suddenly, talking to someone, maybe to him, maybe to herself. Her speech had no meaning he could discern. Chin, whose mother had worked as a servant for German missionaries and later for a British family in the ceded area of Canton and briefly for a family of Mohammedans, had been surrounded by foreign languages all his life. People speaking a foreign tongue often appear more logical and intelligent than those who can be actually understood. It is inconceivable that extraordinary sounds should signify something trivial or mundane. But this woman's speech felt lunatic, and it was cold enough to give Chin the momentary illusion that her words had form inste ad of meaning, were corporeal. He could see them, hovering about her open mouth.
In spite of the cold, the woman wore only a dress with crushed pannier and insubstantial leggings. This, too, was a mystery. Chin Ah Kin had been told that Puyallup Indians could sleep in the woods at night without blankets or shelter, but he had never heard this ability attributed to a white woman. Initially, he mistook her for a ghost.
He had been hoping for a ghost. Ghost women often appeared to men of his age, luring them away, entrapping them in seductions that might last for centuries. Such men returned to bewildering and alien landscapes. The trees would be the same, though larger; there the apple tree that grew in the corner of the yard, there the almond that once shaded the doorway. Trees are as close to immortality as the rest of us ever come. But the house would be gone, the people transformed; granddaughters into old women, daughters into the grass on their graves. Popular wisdom held that these men were lucky to have escaped at all, but Chin had his own opinions about this. Chin was a philosopher, his uncle said. Philosophers and running water always sought the easy way out. No more mining. No more working on the railroad. No need to send explanations or apologies to your parents back in China. But I was enchanted, he could always say later. Who was going to argue with this? Who would still be alive?
The ghost lover was so beautiful, she broke your heart just to look at her. She wore the faint perfume of your sweetest memories, a perfume that would be different to every man, depending on his province, the foods he liked, what his mother had used to wash her hair. The ghost lover dressed in clothes that were no longer fashionable. She seldom appeared in broad daylight, preferring shadows, and seldom faced you directly. There was something strange about her eyes, a light-swallowing flatness that always seemed to be an illusion no matter how closely you looked at her. Chin looked more closely at his apparition. She was the ugliest woman he could imagine. He revised his opinion. His second guess was that she was a prostitute.
To the best of his knowledge, he had never seen a white prostitute before. It was always possible that he had and not known it, of course, since the white men called prostitutes seamstresses and they called seamstresses seamstresses, too, and occasionally, like the famous Betsy Ross, revered them. It could get tricky. He recalled briefly the prostitute he had seen last year in eastern Washington. He and his uncle had been sluicing on the Columbia when a big-footed woman from Canton was taken through the mining camps. She wore the checkered scarf, so there was no mistaking her, and also a rope, one end tied around her waist, the other in the hands of the turtle man. While the man talked, the woman's head had drifted about her neck; her eyes rolled up in their sockets. She was ecstatic or she was very ill. She had a set of scars, little bird tracks, down the side of one cheek. Chin had wondered what would make such scars. "Very cheap," the turtle man assured them and then, to make her more alluring, "She has just been with your father."
The woman in the forest gestured for Chin to come closer. Chin asked himself what could be gained by any intercourse with a white woman who had hair above her lip and also a nose that was long even by white standards. He looked away from her and into the trees, where his uncle was returning to camp holding two small birds that appeared to be domesticated doves. It was not at all clear that the woman had been gesturing to him, anyway.
"There is a small white woman with a large nose here," his uncle pointed out. Of course, he said it in Cantonese in case she understood English; it would not be so rude. "She is very ugly." Chin's uncle dropped one of the doves onto his blanket roll and shook the other; its head bobbed impotently on its neck. He took his knife from his boot and spread the bird on a tree stump fortuitously suited to this purpose. It was not a large stump, maybe two hands across, but it had many rings, each one fitting inside the next like a puzzle. People were like this too, Chin thought. A constant accumulation--each year, a little more experience, each year, another layer of wisdom. Old age was a state much to be envied.
Chin's uncle severed the bird's feet in a single motion. "So very sad. So tragic, really. The life of an ugly woman. If she does not leave soon, she will bring us all kinds of trouble. You must make her go away."
"She is looking for opium," Chin suggested, opium being the obvious antidote to the woman's state of overexcitement and the only thing he could imagine that would bring a white woman into a camp of Chinese men. He had smoked opium himself on several occasions and drunk it once. At no time had it left him in anything like this agitated condition. Poor ugly woman. He was overcome with sorrow at the situation. He moved to the other side of a tree, out of sight, and shouted at the crazy lady to go home. Her voice rose in response, an unpleasant, exultant clacking. It was possible she did not know that he was talking to her.
"You must be forceful," his uncle said. He had an unusually mobile face and one mole to the left side of his nose, which quivered distractingly when he spoke. He himself held forceful opinions, which he hinted had brought him powerful friends as well as potent enemies. He lived life inside the fist, belonging, or so he claimed, to the secret Society for the Broadening of Human Life and the Chinese Empire Reform Association as well. He hated the Dowager Empress, Tz'u-hsi, with a particularly forceful passion. "Overthrow the Ch'ing and restore the Ming," he might say, instead of "Good day," or "The Manchu Dowager contains twelve stinkpots that are inexplicable," but only if there were no strangers present.
He disapproved of Chin, whose philosophy of life was more flexible. Chin didn't care anymore who was Emperor in China. Chin could read American newspapers and would say anything anybody wanted to hear, even when no strangers were listening. It was a shocking attitude.
"You must make a place for yourself in the world," Chin's uncle told him. "And not always shrink to fit the place that is made for you. You must make the big-nosed woman go away. I am cooking." He picked up one of the dove's severed feet and curled its toes around the index finger of his left hand, sliding it up and down like a coin on a string. "This is not a good time for opium-eating white women to be found inside our camp."
When would have been a good time? The gold was gone and the first feverish speculations in transcontinental railroads had ended in disaster for the investors. The economy was depressed and so were the white men. The American Congress had just announced its intention, given the alternatives, to depend in the future on Nordic fiber. Nordic fiber had settled the Midwest. Nordic fiber could win the West as well. The Chinese, according to this thinking, while well suited to railway work, were not otherwise needed. They had no families and were absolutely indifferent to human suffering; wore their hair in long pigtails, which they prized above all other possessions; and relished a dish called chopsooey, whose main ingredients were rats and snakes. They had been massacred in Los Angeles's Nigger Alleys and in Martinez, and they were picked off one at a time, like fleas, in Union Square in San Francisco and, like fleas, they just kept coming. Chin understood quite well, his uncle did, too, though he didn't always admit it, that it was best to be invisible and, when that could not be achieved, then quiet, at least. All the alternatives in this current dilemma were noisy ones.
Chin came out from behind his tree. The woman stood before him, spine straight as a hanged man's, face transfigured, tongue fluttering in a strange, noisy speech of clicks and bangs. "Go away," Chin told her. "Go home." He said it in English. He said it in German. "Gehen Sie nach Hause!" He said it with his hands and facial expression. She fixed her eyes upon him. Were the pupils curiously flat? Or was that just a drugged dilation? She answered him with a steady and joyful stream of nonsense. Chin gave up.
"You are not being forceful enough," his uncle said. The mole on his cheek quivered.
Chin tried to change the subject. "Why doves?" he asked. "Was there no rat?" It was a joke. His uncle did not laugh. His uncle began to remove the dove's feathers with one hand, a repetitive up-and-down motion at which he was very accomplished. He was ignoring Chin. A snow of feathers fell at his feet.
"When I first saw her," Chin said, "I thought she might be the ghost lover." This was even funnier than the rat joke. His uncle did not pause in his plucking. Chin said something serious. "Sometimes," he said, "the immortals send someone in disguise to test us. Where did this woman come from? I have never seen this woman before."
If she were an immortal, merely feeding her would not be sufficient. She would have to be given the very best parts of the bird--the soft meat of the breast, the dark meat of the heart. His uncle resisted this explanation. In Tacoma, maybe, he said to Chin, they had seen everybody. But in Seattle there were some three thousand people and Chin had seen almost none of them. Was it so hard to believe a crazy woman could have traveled here from Seattle? Hadn't they just traveled here from Seattle themselves? Or Steilacoom? Wasn't there a hospital for crazy people in Steilacoom? "She is not immortal," his uncle said. "She is just lost. We cannot arrive in Tenino, ready for railway work, dragging a crazy white woman behind us. There would be questions. If you cannot convince her to leave on her own, then you will have to go to Steilacoom and ask someone to fetch her." The disadvantages to this plan did not even have to be stated.
"She will soon grow tired and go," Chin suggested. She will take her gifts of long life and many sons and excessive prosperity and give them to someone else.
They waited. Her words continued, frenzied, high-pitched gibberish delivered in a cat-gut voice. The other railway workers arrived with water and wood for the fire. "There is an ugly, noisy, long-nosed white woman," they said. "Right there. By the tree." They seemed to think it was Chin's problem. Chin had seen her first. "Make her be quiet. Make her go away."
Chin's uncle reached inside his heavy right boot and scratched his ankle. "She has come for opium," he assured them. "And we have none. She will soon grow tired and leave."
"She is a crazy woman," Wong Woon said. "Crazy people never grow tired."
All the crazy people were supposed to live together at Fort Steilacoom, where the asylum had enough opium and opium tinctures for everyone. They were not supposed to wander the country alone, turning up in Tacoma or Squak or who knew where else. Neither were prostitutes. Neither were women of any other kind. Chin lowered his voice. "She is an immortal," he said. "The ugliest woman in the world has been created as a test for us." There was no response to this theory. Chin waited a long time for one. "Where did she come from?" he asked. "Seattle? Then she has been walking for days. With no food. With no blanket. Tacoma? Steilacoom? She would still have had to walk all night. And wouldn't she have frozen, dressed as she is dressed?" Chin wished the woman in black would be quiet for a moment. Her constant noise obscured the complex point he was trying to make.
"Not if she kept walking," his uncle said, but the woman's voice had risen so Chin was able to pretend he hadn't heard.
"A woman appears out of nowhere. We should feed her. We should give her a blanket."
Wong Woon began to make the fire. He sat on the ground and stripped bark away from dead wood. He put the bark in one pile and the wood in another. "The person with two blankets can give her one," Wong said. He had to raise his voice suddenly on the word one so as to be heard over the woman. It was a disingenuous suggestion. The person with two blankets did not exist.
Wong Woon lit the pile of bark and Chin's nose filled suddenly with the sweet, smoky smell of transformation. He envied the bark, which had been, in the course of one lifetime, both forest and fire. One endured; one destroyed. Chin said it aloud. "One is one," he said. "All is all." Could Wong Woon deny it?"
Wong Woon looked at him with irritation. Wong Woon had purchased Sam Yee's English Phrasebook in Seattle and had been leading them in a chorus of useful phrases as they walked: I have been cheated of my wages. I have been attacked and robbed. Where is it permissible for me to eat? They depended on Chin for the correct pronunciations. Apparently it brought no gratitude.
Chin's uncle spread a naked wing to its full extension and severed it cleanly. "She cannot stay here. Even for one night. Even if we had a blanket. Even though she is ugly. Opium addicts are like cats. Once we have fed her, she will never go home." He raised his knife again.
Chin looked at the body on the stump. A bird with wings was a star in the sky. Wingless, a stone on the ground. Star. Stone. One was one. But a bird with one wing, Chin thought, would be something beyond the inescapable unities. A bird with one wing would require an entirely different world to support it. Chop. The second severed wing closed like a fan on the tree stump.
Chin's uncle's knife thudded into the wood of the tree. When he lifted it, he had made a new line, which bisected the two inner rings. There were many of these lines. His uncle was speaking in straight lines. Chin was hearing in rings. Circles. Lines. People. Trees. Chin's mind completed this ring in the time it took his uncle to clear his throat and continue. "If she will not go home, someone will have to marry her eventually." Chop. Chin had no doubts as to who that would be. Though surely even the immortals would not demand this. "Or you can take her now to Steilacoom." Chop. "Maybe you will lose her on the trail. Regrettable, certainly, and not something you would want to have happen, but then you could rejoin us in time to get some sleep before morning. We will try for Fort Lewis."
A dusty column of sunlight slid between the trees. It came in at a slight angle, then righted itself, sheathing the woman. She looked up, struck silent, and Chin imagined her pupils constricting from circles to points. Chin knew men who could tell time by reading the pupils of a cat's eyes. He knew that the ghost lover might have the eyes of a cat, which told you she was doomed to appear in the form of a tiger for a part of every day until some man learned her awful secret and loved her in spite of it. The spell would break; your lover's eyes, which had always been jade, were suddenly black. Then your own enchantment began.
Chin saw the woman's dark, round eyes close, allowing him to stare at her rudely. The lines at her mouth and her forehead--this was not a young woman--disappeared in the dazzling sunlight. She was haloed. She was so bright, it hurt. She was wonderfully, wonderfully silent. "I will eat first," Chin told his uncle. He had been chosen. Such things were not to be resisted and nothing would be gained by regretting them. What Buddha sends, he sends.
Chin's uncle had seasoned the dove with five spices purchased from Chin Gee Hee's Emporium in Seattle. There was rice and there were turnips. The spices made Chin's eyes run. He offered food to the woman in black. She put her head into the bowl to eat it, her hair falling forward. Chin gave her his chopsticks and ate with his fingers. The woman watched him, then put the chopsticks aside and ate with her fingers, too. She finished quickly, wiping her nose on the back of her black sleeve. Mucus glistened on the fabric like a snail's slick. It was a rainbow of many colors. It killed what remained of Chin's appetite. He turned his head aside, emptied his own nose onto the fir needles, then went to get his blanket roll.
He added a cooking pot, put on his coat. He wiped his Double Happiness porcelain bowl clean and set it inside the pot with the wok brush and his abacus. He checked his left boot for his knife. The boots were for mining, big and waterproof, purchased from a white man's store in Seattle. Chin had almost bought pants as well--stiff, metallic pants made by Levi Strauss. He had tried them on, but they chafed the insides of his thighs when he walked, binding his testicles in a particularly constrictive way, and his uncle had warned him against them. Repeated wear, his uncle had said, would affect his ability to father children. The Society for the Broadening of Human Life, according to his uncle, was working toward the day when every white demon on the West Coast would be wearing Strauss's insidious pants. Generation by generation, they would tighten the fit. It should be no harder to accomplish than footbinding.
Chin's uncle was a farsighted man. "Ask the doctors," his uncle said, "in Steilacoom if they have powdered tiger's teeth. Buy red pepper if you can."
Chin returned to the woman for his chopsticks. She followed his gaze to them with some uncertainty, then picked them up and held them tightly. At last she offered Chin one back. She put the other into her own pocket. Chin looked at his single chopstick with the character for good fortune etched into it. What good is one chopstick? What good is one wing? What good is one man?
The woman did not want to accompany Chin. He had to take hold of her sleeve. She smelled soggy. He pulled her toward him. She nearly fell before consenting to move her feet, but she retained that transported look on her face. There were dark, indented circles under her eyes like moon shadows. Chin continued to pull. She did not look down and stumbled frequently. Occasionally she laughed. Nothing could have been more disconcerting.
The noises of the camp faded behind them, irritatingly commonplace noises, the noises of people who have no problems of their own and no reason to honor anyone else's. Chin chose a path along the creek, keeping as close to the water as he could. Even as he picked his way, even though patches of bare earth were rare and brambles flourished at his feet and ankles, even though the walking was not thoughtless walking, there was an inertia involved. Once started, it was easier to continue than to stop. The woman must have felt it, too. Soon Chin was able to drop her sleeve and move farther ahead of her. The way was much easier single file. He could hear her trailing him; her breathing was congested but not labored. She hummed from time to time. She spoke occasionally, single, unconnected syllables full of joy. Syllables like wark and shoop. Her inflections rose or fell much like the intonations of Cantonese.
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.
Excerpted from "Sarah Canary"
Copyright © 2004 Karen Joy Fowler.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
What People are Saying About This
“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)
Reading Group Guide
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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is perhaps the oddest book I¿ve ever read. It is filled with memorable characters and interesting history.
In a word - fascinating. On the first day reading this book I got 50 pages in before I realized I had only wanted to read the first chapter. I wanted to get my toes wet - not jump all the way in. From the moment Sarah Canary begins there is nonstop action in the most surreal way. The entire book is written like a mystery. For starters, there are the poems of Emily Dickinson at the beginning of each chapter. They are not there for show. Each poem serves as a clue to the storyline. Then there is the structure of the story itself. Fowler writes in such a lyrical manner that it was easy to want to quote the entire book: "Chin was a small ant, picking his way over the melodic body of the world" (p 12), for example. Another aspect of Sarah Canary I enjoyed is the idea that every main character is an outcast of sorts. It is interesting to try to discover the peculiarity of each character. It becomes easy to do because character development throughout the story is strong. Sarah Canary is not without humor, as well: "Dr. Carr would have liked to see the insane on horseback, too...but he tried to deal in realities" (p 38).It all begins when a strange woman wanders into Chin Ah Kin's railroad camp. She is dirty and wild-looking and speaking in a series of chirps, clicks, grunts and sighs. As a white woman she is an unwelcome sight in a Chinese labor camp. Chin unwillingly becomes responsible for taking her back, but back to where is unknown. Along the way Chin and the wild woman (nicknamed Sarah Canary) encounter different people who, in their own inexplicable way, are drawn to Sarah and develop an overwhelming desire to become attached to her for one reason or another.
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.