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Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler
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Sarah Canary (original 1991; edition 1995)

by Karen Joy Fowler

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5001620,399 (3.66)38
Member:Wookies
Title:Sarah Canary
Authors:Karen Joy Fowler
Info:Zebra (1995), Paperback
Collections:possible sell
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Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler (1991)

  1. 00
    Wild Life by Molly Gloss (lquilter)
    lquilter: Gloss writes beautifully, as does Fowler. The settings are similar -- 19th century Pacific Northwest. The premise is also related; an almost realistic novel that slips into SF-ality.
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» See also 38 mentions

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I read this novel because I was so smitten by We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, and the cover blurb was intriguing. It is winter of 1873 near Tacoma, and a woman suddenly appears in a railroad workers’ camp. She does not seem to understand Chinese or English, or to speak intelligibly. Chin Ah Kin is the first to see her, and when she doesn’t leave on her own despite numerous hints, he is appointed to escort her to... where? Perhaps she came from the insane asylum in Steilacoom? Turns out no, after they arrive circuitously and separately, but there she acquires a name, Sarah Canary, and they acquire a companion, inmate B. J. Escaping into the wilderness, the three encounter Harold, who kidnaps Sarah Canary to exhibit as the Alaskan Wild Woman, in which capacity she is recognized by suffragette lecturer Adelaide Dixon as a fugitive from justice, a woman accused of murdering her husband. A case of mistaken identity, but now Adelaide rescues Sarah Canary from exploitation, Chin and B.J. are still trying to find her, Harold is trying to get her back, and it remains completely unclear who she actually is. Inserted between chapters are real historical tidbits indicating that fiction is no weirder than fact; the times were strange. I was confused, but that’s intentional, a commentary on perception. I respected rather than enjoyed the story.

(read 27 Nov 2013)
  qebo | Dec 1, 2013 |
A very strange book. I enjoyed reading it well enough, but at the end, I felt a bit confused as to just where things were left at the end. ( )
  herebedragons | Jun 16, 2011 |
This is a strange, surreal little novel, which equal parts engaged and bored me. The boredom came from how unfocused and meandering it felt; I was not hooked by the narrative, for all its weird and wonderful twists. I did, however, like Fowler's subtle, wry, intelligent examinations of gender and women's history and human interactions. I was a little more uncertain about how she treated racial interactions, but I feel that topic needs someone more intelligent than I am (and certainly someone not currently running a fever) to dissect its nuances. ( )
  siriaeve | Sep 25, 2010 |
Book Review – Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

Sarah Canary
Karen Joy Fowler
Plume
2004
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: http://www.karenjoyfowler.com/

Author Wikipedia Site: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Karen_Joy_Fowler

Author page Internet Speculative Fiction Database: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/ea.cgi?Karen_Joy_Fowler

Sarah Canary page Internet Speculative Fiction Database: http://www.isfdb.org/cgi-bin/title.cgi?1269

The Alternative
Southeast Wisconsin

http://thealternativeone.blogspot.com/ ( )
3 vote TheAlternativeOne | Oct 17, 2009 |
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You only comprehend things which you perceive.  And as you persist in regarding your ideas of time and space as absolute, although they are only relative, and thence form a judgment on truths which are quite beyond your sphere, and which are imperceptible to your terrestrial organism and faculties, I should not do a true service, my friend, in giving you fuller details of my ultra-terrestrial observations. --Camille Flammarion, Lumen, 1973
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The years after the American Civil War were characterized by excess, ornamented by cults and corruptions.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0452286476, Paperback)

When black cloaked Sarah Canary wanders into a railway 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.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:53:40 -0400)

(see all 5 descriptions)

When a hideous woman appears without warning in Washington Territory, Chin Ah Kin--certain that she is an immortal sent to enchant him--decides to return her to her white world, and their journey together becomes a magnet for a cast of eccentric characters.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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