“But January is your third most common month for madness.” – KJFowler

Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler

It seems the month of madness is almost upon us (probably because people get crazy after the holidays: returning gifts, eating endless leftovers, beginning weight loss resolutions after shoving your face with cookies, pies, rice pudding and other featured holiday desserts.  Not to mention eggnog which could make anyone lose their mind.  So, the perfect book to read, if it wasn’t so damn depressing, would have been Sarah Canary.

I decided to read it from my stock pile of books sitting by my bed patiently waiting for me to grease their pages and because the reviews on goodreads.com were so unsure.  I like to be sure about books, I like to know indefinitely my feelings, figure them out, sort them into categories, and be able to say, “Yes, you should read this, spend a few days with it,” or “no, don’t even worry yourself over something like this.”

But with Sarah Canary by Karen Joy Fowler, I can’t.

I’m not sure whether I should tell anyone to read this.  My favorite character dies at the end, no questions are answered, but then the story lets in slips of history, like a woman showing you her thigh.  It’s a fair peek at the culture’s before us (1800’s ish) and as it raises concerning questions about the rights of women, African-Americans, Chinese and Native Americans, it asks us questions about ourselves.

Sarah Canary is a character driven novel about a series of people who follow a whimsical woman, who only makes sudden sounds and never speaks.  She appears one day at a Chinese railroad camp and starts Chin Ah Kin (Chinese main character) on a journey through people, through cultures, and closer and closer to a destiny of inevitably returning to his home.  Along the way, we find a handful of characters from the Island of Misfit Toys.  There’s BJ, “the nice guy” from the asylum who has moments of lucidity, but honestly probably has never been insane, just not very smart.  A white farm boy without a history who is devoted to his psychiatrist, and later Chin Ah Kin. There’s Adelaide Dixon a woman suffragist who claims to have slept with hoards of men (the truth comes out as you read) and in some way reminds me of Mary Poppins when she glides down from a hotel window to the ground with Sarah Canary.  Sarah Canary is the whimsical ghost, muse, lover, wild woman that everyone is chasing throughout the novel, to save or capture for various reasons.  Harold is her … well, in modern day, he would be a stalker, who creates a traveling show around her oddities.  There’s the towns of white men they travel through.  And in Chin’s story, there’s Tom who he must kill at the very beginning in order to be free.  Throughout the whole story, he takes seriously a promise he makes to Tom to show him something unbelievable and maybe this book is Chin’s adventure through the miraculous.  And then again, maybe not.

Image from Fowler's story "Forgotten Birds"

The reason I’m not sure that this book should be recommended is because it has relatively no plot.  It’s a book about a group of people thrown, disarmed, knocked-off, traveling, and avoiding one another, always trying to protect or exploit the same woman.  That’s about as much plot as I can really muster out of my cold, grinch heart for this one.  The reason I can recommend it is because it brings us through a history that we often set aside and forget.  I think, as a white person, I often let history speak to me from my own perspective.  It’s hard to identify with the misplaced Native Americans, or the brought over without will Chinese and African-American’s.  I know as a college student I often felt like I could identify because we’ve all been alone, we’ve all been left, or had something taken from  us.  However, I’m not sure (unless the birth control law passes) that I’ve ever had my freedom taken from me.  And yet here, in America, we are still fighting over the marriage freedom of the LGBT community – so it is still a valid concept this lack of freedom in our nation’s history.

With every fictional chapter, (I believe) Fowler adds in a nonfictional chapter on what was happening in the historical perspective. This book is like an amusement park for a paideia student.  It’s the history and the english, the real life and the fictional and yet they blend so well together. (Obviously, you’re hearing it from paideia’s biggest advocate).  Part of the time, the most interesting section was the historical perspective section when you realized that yes, what was happening to Chin as a Chinese man or Tom as a Native American was actually happening.  The part I most connected to was obviously the suffragist movement told through the character Adelaide Dixon.  She was constantly (and in the final moments of the book) being bombarded with men; drunk, old, young, handling guns, giving her roses, exploring her living spaces, asking her questions or commenting on her vulgarities.  It was just on one hand amusing because of how far we’ve come (although we aren’t quite there yet with all these balding suits wanting to take away our bodily freedoms), but on the same side it was disturbing because this probably actually happened (more than probably, but I’m trying to stay half full).

Another image from "Familiar Birds." I think they're beautiful.

People with guns, sheesh, it’s like they live in North Carolina hunting season or something.  Everyone in this book had a gun except the people who really needed guns.  Thank God Adelaide Dixon stole a few in her escapes.

See what I’m saying?  I don’t even know where to go with this post.  This book is a wonderful historic and fictional look, but it’s not going to whisper to you in the dark to, “read me.”  It isn’t a book you lust after.  It isn’t a book that you stay awake flipping the pages through to see when the end of the chapter is (or it might be if you’re impatient).   I just want to warn you that you have to take your time with this book.  Sarah Canary is a book that you court and take out to dinner a few times before you actually get her in the sack (if you know what I’m saying).  And this is why yesterday the Good Men Project said that feminism is to blame for the hook-up culture…people like me.

Well, as usual, here are the links:

Other Blog Reviews:

Not many people (bloggers) with afflictions, have reviewed this book.  I had a really hard time googling around which means all of you should read it – share your opinions and review it.  I admit, the book is a bit old, and it may be just that blogging didn’t come into the internet escapades until after this book was published.  Though, if bloggers don’t review all types, and all ages of books then amazing authors, and stories will turn to dust and fire.

5 thoughts on ““But January is your third most common month for madness.” – KJFowler

  1. Book Club Babe says:

    I actually met Karen Joy Fowler while attending UCSC. I’m not an Austen fan, but I really enjoyed her “Jane Austen Book Club” (which she signed!) “Sarah Canary” doesn’t sound like my cup of tea, but I recommend “Jane Austen Book Club.” A much more light-hearted read!

    • Cassie says:

      That’s awesome – she seems like a really interesting woman. I do like her sci-fi stuff, but I will give Jane Austen a try. I’m sure it will be somewhere in my local used bookstore. Thanks for the recommendation.


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