Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Written in 1991 by Karen Joy Fowler. Published by Plume, 2004. 304 pages.

Sarah Canary is one of those books you should sit down and read in a weekend. If you pick it up and put it down, you might be apt to fall out of the confusing haze of localized history and suspended reality this story tends to throw you into as fast as it slaps you out of it. Instead you should sit down for a couple of days and let the moody northwestern saga (and it is certainly that) of magical realism wash over you like the Puget Sound.

The intricately twisting plot of the story falls second to the format and structure of the book and third to the exploration of perspectives of oppression and wrongdoing though dynamic characters. The book is broken up into nineteen chapters, each of which are entitled and introduced with a line or stanza or short poem by Emily Dickenson, thematically relevant to the respective chapter — a self-aware move by Fowler that helps to set the theme and tone for the chapter to come. Most chapters are also preceded by a historical anecdote, generally focused around happenings in the Pacific Northwest. These moments in time progress chronologically with the book, and serve the dual purpose of tying reality (temporally, geographically) to the story, and to teach us about moments in history when power is created, and occasionally overturned. The story shifts perspectives frequently, chapter by chapter, and each shift gives the reader insight into the personal objectives of each character — circulating around their respective need for Sarah Canary.

When the story opens on one of the main character perspectives of Chin Ah Kin, a Chinese railworker during the sprawl of the transcontinental railway, the reader is instantly given a unique socio-historical context to chew on in the background of an otherwise simple set of interactions. In this moment, Sarah Canary (or just “ugly white woman” at this stage in the game) is introduced. An unattractive woman with dark gnarly hair and a large hooked nose, the mysterious emergence of Sarah Canary from the thick woods of the Pacific Northwest begins a long series of interactions between her and Chin – wherein her lack of speech capabilities and generally confused demeanor consistently agitates and incriminates her erstwhile protector.  Chin’s character, for all intents and purposes, acts as the ‘hero’ of this tale, but is repeatedly ignored for his feats and bravery because of his race. He is perhaps the most sane and thoughtful character in the book, and continues to earn no respect, even amongst his own people.

Chin seeks to protect and deliver (to an unknown end) Sarah Canary to whence she came under the assumption that she is a goddess, and according to the mythology of his heritage great wealth could result from his taking on this heroic task. A series of events leads them to an asylum wherein the book’s second (of many) example of institutional oppression is mapped out in the explanation of the psychotherapy practices of that era. During Chin and Sarah Canary’s short stint in the asylum, the third main protagonist, B.J., is introduced. B.J. is an overly-friendly and familiar tagalong who acts in the story not so much as a greek chorus, but as a moral reflection for the other characters. B.J. is introduced as a patient at the asylum, and escapes to continue the adventure with Chin and Sarah Canary. He is psychotic only in that inanimate objects “speak” to him from time to time. His other curious tendencies are reminiscent of Foucault’s madman, unable to view and accept the world exactly as it is presented to him — he distrusts his own perceptions of distance, size, and general appearance, because he has been systematically convinced that his sense of perception is incorrect. It should be noted, that B.J. maintains social superiority over Chin and therefore is the mouthpiece of the mottled duo. He is the first and only character in this story that latches onto Sarah Canary out of purely good will, and thereupon reflects Fowler’s expression of altruism in this story.

The third major character that the group comes across is Miss Adelaide Dixon, a suffragette and independent lecturer who clings to popular social events as a vehicle for her feminist works. Dixon becomes one of Sarah Canary’s protectors upon mistaking her for a recently escaped husband-murderer, and then continues on with her as a sort of point to be made. It is indicated that Dixon may lack the actuality of sisterhood that she preaches. Through Dixon we get to peer out of the eyes of a popularly-opposed suffragette, and similarly we are allowed into the minds of B.J. and Chin, who are struggling to understand the political nature of a woman. Much of the book’s feminist work is appropriately catalysed by Adelaide Dixon, as her influence spreads to the minds of multiple characters and how they view, think about, and treat women. Many other characters of various races and classes are encountered in the book, all of which are meaningfully entwined in the period’s culture, as they are in the complicated ruse of the mysterious Sarah Canary.

Fowler elegantly plays the reader into believing that the point of the story is to figure out Sarah Canary: Where is she from? What is she? What is her objective? What will happen when it is reached? In reality, this book is about every character but Sarah Canary. The question persists in the reader’s mind throughout the story — why, even after these characters learn that Sarah Canary may not be of discernible use to them, do they need her around? Sarah Canary never imposes herself on her protectors, she is instead taken on like a project, an endeavor through which the protectors might find meaning, wealth, love, you name it. Sarah Canary (named as such by patients at the asylum, for her beautiful chirping voice) exists as an ethereal palette on which the dreams and anguishes of the characters of this story can be written. It is a metanarrative of exploitation to the minor stories within, both in each of the character’s lives, as well as in the historical anecdotes Fowler includes before each chapter.

This is the sort of book that could appeal to a multitude of audiences. It can be read from a variety of angles, and provides enough depth to never really touch the bottom. The writing is clear and accessible which allows space for the reader to digest the complex socio-political nature of the story. I look forward to reading more of Fowler’s works in the future.

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One response to “Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

  • cstabile

    Sarah Canary is a wonderfully complicated novel, as you point out in this elegantly written review. Perhaps alone of the white writers we’ve read, she paints a complicated portrait of the history of racial relations in the Pacific Northwest — you don’t mention the encounters with Native Americans in the novel — the novel is a kind of palimpsest of very differently experienced forms of oppression.

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