I would never wish grad school on anyone, least of all myself, but I would have liked to discuss this book with a professor and a bunch of lit nerds. I don't feel compelled to write an eight-page paper about it, complete with block quotes and 5-10 reputable outside sources, which is one reason I remain firmly outside the world of academia. Still, Sarah Canary is so dense it would have been nice to unpack it with a little guidance from a sweatered and bespectacled lit professor with feminist leanings to her criticism.
But the only bespectacled person here is me, and it's June and too warm for sweaters, so I'll have to muddle through on my own this time. Sarah Canary is about a strange woman who appears in the woods in 1873 near where a group of Chinese railroad workers are camped. One of the men, Chin Ah Kin, is ordered to escort her back to civilized white society. So he does—or he tries, anyway. The woman, clad all in black, speaks only in unintelligible syllables and isn't particularly amenable to being herded. What follows is a chaotic, looping journey that takes Chin in and out of an insane asylum, alongside a one-man traveling freak show, and under the influence of a radical suffragist preaching on man's responsibility for the female orgasm.
Following me so far? In between chapters, Fowler provides brief historical sections with anecdotes from the time period in question, shedding light on the treatment of women and marginalized ethnic groups like Native Americans and Chinese immigrants. These snippets are included largely without editorial comment, but their absurdity and horror speak for themselves, and they lend deeper meaning to the way other characters respond to Sarah. As Chin pursues her up and down the west coast, it seems just about everyone wants to capture and control her for his or her own purposes. Chin may be the most altruistic of the bunch, but even he doesn't understand who or what Sarah is and how exactly to help her. All the while, Sarah traipses along cheerfully enough, chirping like a bird, effortlessly evading all comers, and occasionally wreaking her own innocent havoc.
So what is Sarah? A ghost? A benevolent spirit? A madwoman? An escaped murderess? A child raised by wolves? Don't expect Fowler to provide those answers. And anyway, Sarah's true identity is beside the point. The real focus is the way people throughout history have misunderstood and attempted to control each other. Flighty, enigmatic Sarah Canary, her would-be savior Chin, and even the self-absorbed suffragist Adelaide each demonstrate this theme in a unique way.
Since this isn't grad school, I'll end my analysis here. This is the kind of book you could read many times over, mining for different details and building new interpretations. It's the kind of book you'll want to read with a highlighter or pencil handy. Unless you're Adam, who can't abide markings in his books, even the crappy used copies. Just one of many “agree to disagree” moments in our marriage. (I am, of course, right.)
Want more Karen Joy Fowler? See my recommendation for her more recent novel, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves.