It is a widely accepted fact that our passions and interests are not evenly distributed among the eras of human history. Some prefer tales of neolithic courage; others are interested in ancient Greece, Ilium, Rome. I have a soft spot for medieval and Tudor England; even Victorian England has its allure. Late 19th-century America, not so much. I do not avoid books set in that time, nor do I go out of my way to read them.
The atmosphere of Sarah Canary's time period holds little appeal for me. Asylums and steamboats … carnivals and freakshows … a time where the frontier of the Wild West has been settled, but not yet successfully civilized. Amid all these distractions, we have a migrant Chinese railroad worker, an escaped asylum inmate, and a woman with no identity, no personality, no intelligible voice.
I should say at this point that Sarah Canary is not what I expected at all—and that is fine. Actually, I'm not sure what I was expecting, but I was not expecting the mix of mystery and magical realism that Fowler delivers. What starts as a slow, almost plodding quest to discover the nature of Sarah Canary metamorphoses into an interstate adventure. Sarah Canary passes through a quixotic chain of custody, and each of her keepers have their own motivations for helping her. Chin thinks that she is an immortal, and thus it is his duty to help. BJ seems to be along for the ride. Harold wants to profit off of Sarah Canary, billing her as the "Alaskan Wild Woman." Adelaide Dixon mistakes Sarah Canary for a murderer.
Sarah Canary is the thread common to all these people's lives, the nexus that brings them together in a grand chase stretching from Steilacoom, Washington all the way to San Francisco, California. Of all the strange characters who populate this narrative, Sarah is perhaps the least well-defined, because she has no voice. Instead, she is like negative space in a painting, her shape defined by those around her. Is she a wild woman? An escaped murder? A poor, innocent, insane woman? Or an immortal, seeking acts of human kindness?
Discovering the truth about Sarah Canary is never the point of this novel. We learn very little that is definite about this woman—if indeed she is a woman—but she has a very definite impact on the characters' lives. Chin travels down the West Coast for her, dragging BJ in his tow. His actions are at times questionable, even illegal, and usually dangerous. Harold, perhaps the most delusional character (bar none), looks to Sarah Canary for quick cash and discovers his own immortality. Adelaide seeks to use Sarah Canary for her own purposes and nearly ends up a tiger's lunch.
So yeah, I'm calling MacGuffin on Sarah Canary. She's a plot device that creates the convergence of characters, the motivation for all the events in the novel. And there is nothing wrong with that, although I wish the characters in question were somewhat more three-dimensional.
By and large I enjoyed Fowler's characterization. Chin and BJ have an interesting dynamic. Both of them are somewhat outsiders from society, and they each have an interesting perspective on the world: Chin's is coloured by his Chinese heritage, full of Confucian metaphor and mythical messages; BJ, high-functioning but still not quite there, liberally mixes fact and fiction. Personality quirks aside, however, the characters never fully rise above the archetypes they represent. In particular, Adelaide is a tireless campaigner for women's rights . . . and that's about all. The characters have personalities but not fully-developed personae.
Sarah Canary didn't leave me awestruck, but it did touch me—especially the ending. Chin's reflection on the nature of story and the role of reader is poignant and true. That being said, what was up with that epilogue?