Saturday, October 17, 2009

Book Review – Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary
Karen Joy Fowler
ISBN: 978-0452286474
Trade Paperback
304 pages

I’ve neglected reviewing this unusual book for far too long and since I’m currently in the middle of at least five reads (see sidebar) I thought I’d post my review of “Sarah Canary” by Karen Joy Fowler during the interim. So stay tuned for a profusion of new reviews in the coming weeks. With that in mind…

I have a weakness for hard to place works, especially those with an historical undertone. (See previous posts – World War II essentials, “Those Who Went Remain There Still,” “The Book Thief,” etc.) Sub-genre? Fantasy, science fiction, mystery, Western, non-fiction, horror it makes no difference to me. So this particular work was appealing from the very first page. And, I was not disappointed.

Who is Sarah Canary? And you’ll ask your self this question a number of times throughout the story. And just as often your perception may change. Is she:
A. A lost, pampered member of an aristocratic family?
B. A runaway suffering from a congenital mental defect?
C. A simple feral child raised by forest creatures?
D. An alien outcast banished to Earth?
E. All of the above?
F. None of the above?

The answer is… seven! (I’ll get back to this later.)

Set in the logging region of Washington Territory in 1873 “Sarah Canary” tells the story of a white woman who wanders unexpectedly into a Chinese railway workers’ camp. She is despondent and silent but captivating. And everyone she meets falls under her strange spell, including Chin, a Mandarin scholar working on the railroad; B.J., an escaped inmate from the Territorial Asylum; a union survivor of Andersonville Prison; Adelaide Dixon, a suffragist feminist on a lecture tour; and Harold, a huckster who wants to put Sarah in his traveling side-show. What do they all have in common? They are all discards of society and they all hold their own unconventional perceptions of reality. And, for some unexplained reason, they all see in and want something different for Sarah.

In addition to the flowing narrative Fowler adds quotes from Emily Dickinson before each chapter and interesting news fragments from the era to help provide clues for us to follow as we read. The historical facts give us a perspective of the times and the Dickinson quotes correspond to the action that takes place in each of the chapters. So much so, that they appear as if Fowler wrote them herself. An extraordinary feat of research in and of itself.

Fowler has given us a fine piece of historical fiction, one which manages to remain thoroughly entertaining in spite or perhaps because of the powerful and abstract nature of the subtext which is clearly alienation and perception.

Who is Sarah Canary, then? My answer “seven” above is meaningful in its meaningless. It really doesn’t matter who she is. What she is is a representation of the alienated. She is an outcast and Fowler asks us all take a step back and recall our own lonely moments, our own times of confusion, our own prejudices. And, in the end, the moral is this… even a true alien can find companionship, understanding, and empathy from complete strangers; sometimes, without even looking for it.

Sarah Canary has all the elements of good science fiction, gripping history, the suspense of mystery, and the excitement and action of a Western. In the end the book is genderless, belongs to no one genre, and yet somehow seems to fit them all. It is a retrospective on human nature, superstition, prejudice, and cultural differences and Fowler forces us to examine our own feelings concerning them in minute detail.

4 out of 5 stars

Related websites:

Author site:

Author Wikipedia Site:

Author page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

Sarah Canary page Internet Speculative Fiction Database:

The Alternative
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