Historical Sci-fi Book Review: Sarah Canary

I don’t often review traditionally published books on this blog, but I felt the desire to do so after reading Sarah Canary by Karen Jay Fowler for my Reading Like a Writer book group. It was written the year I was born, so it’s not as though there aren’t a ton of reviews already out there.

The story opens with Chin, a Chinese migrant worker who was brought to the Pacific Northwest (where the story takes place) on a slave ship so he could be forced to work on the railroads going West. He runs into the “ugliest woman he’s ever seen,” in the forest, and because she’s making such a racket and he’s the one who discovered her, his father orders him to get rid of her.

She runs off into the woods and he chases her, thinking she’s a “ghost lover” that will grant his wildest dreams if he treats her nicely. She ends up in an insane asylum and he’s captured by a group of white people after passing out in a graveyard following the chase. When he awakens, she’s nowhere to be seen, and he’s in a jail cell with a native American man (consistently referred to as an Indian) named Tom who killed a Chinese man. The white people want Chin to kill Tom because they believe that it will keep Tom’s tribe from attacking their town, even though the white folks were the ones who ordered the killing.

Chin is forced to spend the night with Tom and gets to know him. Tom demands Chin show him something he’s never seen or he’ll kill him, and Chin, unable to do so, is saved by the hooting of an owl that Tom considers his totem spirit. They share a deep conversation, and come morning Chin is forced to hang Tom in front of the town for his freedom.

This is the strongest emotional moment in the book, and I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was incredibly difficult to read, given that I myself am from an indigenous tribe from this area. The problem is, after such a strong start the book slides rapidly downhill. We get two more point of view characters, an insane man named B.J. (who ended up being my favorite character for his silly antics and surprisingly deep, if random, insights into the world around him), and a historical feminist named Adeleine.

After the scene with Tom, Chin continues to chase Sarah Canary from the asylum at Steilacoom, Washington through Oregon and eventually into California, where race riots and Chinese lynchings are becoming the norm. The problem I had with this, though, is that almost everything that happens feels like it’s just happenstance. He stumbles in and out of his troubles (as do the other two main characters), and after he stops believing Sarah is a ghost lover, his motivations become clouded and I couldn’t understand why he’d keep risking his life for this clearly disabled woman.

An antagonist outside of the racist and sexist culture doesn’t really emerge until 2/3 of the way through the book, and by then we don’t have enough time to get to know his motivations beyond just being a caricature of legitimately evil white men at the time. I know the author intended for the book to be read as sci-fi to sci-fi readers, but you really have to dig deep into a few specific scenes to see the speculative influence, and even then the author seems hell bent on making sure you doubt the sci-fi interpretations by the next scene.

Although the writing style is gorgeous and the interior monologues of the characters quite poetic, their lack of agency and the book’s terrible pacing made me doubt I’d keep reading if it wasn’t for my book club having assigned it.

3/5 for the writing style alone. I know she had to have gotten better later, but this one just didn’t do it for me.