Monday, August 22, 2016

The story is ourselves

"If Sarah Canary is just what she seems, harmless, vague ..." Chin thought Sarah Canary had never seemed harmless or vague to him. Mysterious, rather. Possibly powerful. Certainly purposeful.
Karen Joy Fowler, Sarah Canary

When you make assumptions about people, assume you are wrong. That is one conclusion to be drawn from Karen Joy Fowler's mysterious, powerful and certainly purposeful 1991 novel Sarah Canary.

Sarah Canary, a name just bestowed on her because nobody knows her real name, is mute. She is a "strange and ugly white woman" who shows up in the Pacific Northwest in the 1870s. Everyone has a different idea of who or what she might be. To Chin, who has come all the way from China to work on the railroad, she seems like a ghost, and he feels somehow obligated to watch over her. Soon she is assumed to be mentally ill and, along with Chin, is locked away in an asylum. She soon escapes with Chin and B.J., another of the inmates.

Later Sarah is thought to be a wild woman raised by wolves and is made a part of a traveling show, even though audiences find her disappointingly tame. Adelaide, a suffragette, mistakes her for a woman on the run for killing her husband. Others think her a man in disguise. There is even a suggestion she could be an alien from outer space. Readers never discover who Sarah Canary really is. True to the spirit of her novel, Fowler lets us make our own assumptions and draw our own conclusions.

Yet Fowler's novel is more than a satire on people's misconceptions about other people. It could be viewed as a philosophical treatise on reality itself. Consider the following lines near her conclusion:

"What we say occupies a very thin surface, like the skin over a body of water. Beneath this, through the water itself, is what we see, sometimes clearly if the water is calm, sometimes vague if the water is troubled, and we imagine this vision to be the truth, clear or vague. But beneath this is yet another level. This is the level of what is and this level has nothing to do with what we say or what we see."

And a few pages later:

"We listen to stories and forget that the listening also tells the story. The story we hear is ourselves. We are the only ones who can hear it."

Thus, what I see and hear is not what you see and hear, even if we are in the same place at the same time. It helps explain political differences, religious differences and, in fact, the differences that create every division, every argument, every war. It also explains the power of literature itself. What I read in a story, including this story, is not at all what you will read.

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