Karen Joy Fowler

"Sister Noon"

(Reviewed by Karma Sawka JUN 16, 2002)

When my book group was deciding on the next book we would read together, I voted on this one simply because I had upcoming plans to visit San Francisco and thought a fictional historical view of the city might be interesting. Although the facts I learned from Sister Noon were few, there were certainly enough to put the society of late 1800s San Francisco into perspective for the storyline.

The present of this story is 1894 San Francisco, when the first telephone calls were made at Golden Gate Park, when the first paved streets were navigable, and when Nob Hill had its first streetcars. There still weren't many women in that muddy, sandy town, where money seemed to grow on trees, and streets were cobbled with empty whisky bottles, but there were more than there had been 50 years earlier, when the population was even less reputable. 1890s San Francisco was a time and a place when single women were rare and were thought of as selfish for not belonging to some man or another.

The protagonist of Sister Noon is the self-described dowdy spinster, Lizzie Hayes. The treasurer for the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home, an orphanage nicknamed the Brown Ark, she is a romantic at heart, someone for whom books are the key to true passion. Lizzie suffers from disabling and disorienting migraine headaches, which seem to serve as plot turnkeys and as a sort of cloud under which she sometimes hovers.

Lizzie soon becomes entangled with the mysterious Miss Mary E. Pleasant, a true historical figure of social change and equality and truly the greatest enigma of the novel. Miss Pleasant - a woman of questionable character and race, and about whom many rumors (including voodoo and child farming) fly around San Francisco - arrives at the Ark with a young girl, Jenny Ijub, in need of a home. Jenny's mother was supposedly buried at sea, and Lizzie reluctantly accepts her into the home, even though there isn't room and Jenny seems a bit younger than the required four years of age, because she doesn't dare say no to Miss Pleasant. From there the story floats through a series of Victorian séances, peculiar wealthy families and their mystery mansions, and the puzzling question of Jenny Ijub's paternity, which ultimately connects the girl with many of the minor characters of the story.

Lizzie is an interesting protagonist, as she struggles between her internal and external self, between what she wants to be and what she should do in order to protect her reputation. "Lizzie was eager to show everyone her same old self, boring as ever, and keeping quiet about her real thought, just the way they liked her best." Although she is quite an adult herself, Lizzie has been informally adopted by the Putnams, friends of her late mother and father, who frown upon her connection with Miss Pleasant and urge her to behave like a proper lady.

After declaring that she would have no more to do with Miss Pleasant, Lizzie shows her true, endearing, internal sarcastic self:

"In fact, after her declaration, things got even better. As a reward for being the same old Lizzie, Mrs. Putnam invited her to join them for the Saturday-evening promenade. Not this week, when they had a dinner to go to, but weather permitting, the next. Happy Lizzie! She loved the Saturday-night Market Street parade. Saturday afternoon was for women and fashion. Lizzie could go to that alone, but she had no interest. Saturday night required an escort.

And then things got better yet. The baby made a series of gaseous noises and began to smell. The nursemaid was hovering nearby. She was thin and drained-looking, a woman whose hands, when empty, drooped exhausted from her wrists. Mrs. Putnam handed little Charles to her. His odor receded down the hall, up the stairs, and behind the nursery doors. There was no further talk of what a rosebud he was. Lizzie drank her tea in utter contentment."

The book opens with this quote by Mary E. Pleasant: "Words were invented so that lies could be told." There are so many mysterious tidbits in this book the reader isn't sure who or what to believe. Fowler captures Victorian era sensibilities, not only in her characters' values and attitudes, but also through enough points of reference - Victorian spirituality, superstition and séances, references to the recent Jack the Ripper murders ("The string of women who'd been murdered on the streets of Whitechapel a year or so ago… the women were fed with poisoned grapes") and breathtaking corsets ("her corset was sawing her in half") - to make it feel quite genuine. At the same time, the syntax is easy to read and modern.

The title of the story itself is a mystery until the denouement, when the reader learns exactly who Sister Noon refers to. Finishing the novel doesn't ensure that the reader will come to any pat conclusions; this is the sort of story in which there are nuances and hints, but not many hard facts, which led to a spirited discussion when my book group got back together.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 20 reviews

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About the Author:

Karen Joy FowlerKaren Joy (Burke) Fowler was born in Bloomington, Indiana in 1950. Her family moved to Palo Alto, California when she was 11-years-old. After graduating from Palo Alto High in 1968 she went to Berkely College where she majored in political science and was a antiwar activist. She was at Berkely during People's Park, when the city was occupied and there were tanks on the street corners, and she was there during the Jackson State/Kent State killings. This is also when and where she met her husband, Hugh Sterling Fowler II. They married after she graduated and then they went off to graduate school at UC Davis where she received her M.A. in 1974. She had her first child during spring break of the last year of her masters and two years later her second child.

Afer a lifetime of being an avid reader, it was on her 30th birthday that she decided to be a writer. Her work straddles the line between many genres, including science fiction, fantasy, historical, feminist, and philosophical. She is also the co-founder (with Pat Murphy) of the James Tiptree Memorial Award for fiction that tackles and sheds new light on gender issues. Her latest novel, Sister Noon was a finalist for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award.

Karen and her husband still live in Davis, California; their son and daughter have left for college and beyond.

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