“Sister Noon” by Karen Joy Fowler

A mysterious black woman is running the show in a comic novel of strivers, do-gooders and racial fear in Gilded Age San Francisco.

Topics: Books,

Lizzie Hayes, the protagonist of Karen Joy Fowler’s “Sister Noon,” reads popular novels, and like many sad 19th century women, she reads them to escape into dreams of an adventurous life. Fowler mentions one “feverish” title, “The Hidden Hand” by E.D.E.N Southworth, and like that work, “Sister Noon” is a secret-filled, sometimes deliciously macabre book. In Fowler’s novel, voodoo goddesses, high-society villains and repressed do-gooders tangle over an agitated orphan named Jenny whose mysterious origins are at the center of the book’s secrets. Fowler so expertly evokes the sensational mood of a 19th century mystery that, were it not for her unmistakably critical voice — her mischievous insight and cold, hard wit — “Sister Noon” might itself have laid on the floor beside Lizzie’s bed. Fowler has also crafted a thoughtful social critique of turn-of-the-century San Francisco, proving that even in the fresh lands of the American West, old ideas die hard and only some Americans can truly begin anew.

In Fowler’s rendering of Gilded Age San Francisco, a black woman runs the show. Mary Ellen Pleasant (a real historical figure) passes among the city’s upper-crusty bachelors for stunning, eligible — and white. Her race goes undetected until she (in a wonderful, carefully drawn-out scene) happens to mention that she was born into slavery. Mrs. Pleasant lives in the House of Mystery with Thomas and Teresa Bell, a strange, filthy-rich family that is the subject of endless and outrageous gossip. The Bell family seems to be somehow controlled by Mrs. Pleasant, as do many of the goings-on in San Francisco.

Lizzie is curious and enchanted when she’s drawn into Mrs. Pleasant’s orbit. But in the tormented imaginations of the rest of the wealthy and bored, the mysterious Mrs. Pleasant is a baby-farmer, an abolitionist, a beguiling chef, a high-class madam, a brilliant businesswoman, a voodoo queen and an opium-pusher. Mostly, of course, they are just outraged that she is black, more powerful than a man and indifferent to the women who twitter about in their drawing rooms. “You society women,” Mrs. Pleasant finally says to Lizzie, “You always think everything’s about you. You think everyone else is only here to cook your meals or sew your clothes or be grateful for your charity or forgive you.”

Fowler possesses a sly, quirky humor that seems to slice the page in two, and there are many sharp and memorable sentences in “Sister Noon” (“If she could take in a motherless colored girl and turn her out white and adopted,” Lizzie muses when she considers whether the orphan Jenny might be black, “she would count it a good day’s work.”) But in particular, the passages that pull back the curtains on the ladies’ gossipy gatherings are spectacularly entertaining. One woman believes that voodoo is “black arts aimed at the destruction of the white race.” Lizzie, unmarried and haunted by her parents’ puritanical wishes, wrestles with the clash between convention and her own curiosity. Often, her conflicts inspire Fowler’s most scathing social critiques. When Lizzie considers whether to allow a young Chinese (but devoutly Christian!) boy to live at the Brown Ark, the protection home for children that she runs, she rationalizes that he can live there because “Lillie Langtry had just adopted a small Chinese boy; they were all the rage in the more fashionable homes.”

Fowler, the author of “Sarah Canary” and “The Sweetheart Season,” never actually reveals the truth about Mrs. Pleasant, either because no one knows or because it’s none of anyone’s business. Yet she’s quite a fictional creation, a female character who possesses a freedom that those who scorn her have never known. Even Lizzie, despite being warned by her nagging dead mother at a siance — “It seemed to be all me, me, me, after you died” — to stay far away from the dangerous Mrs. Pleasant, is drawn to her, and to the parts of herself clamoring to come out.

Our next pick: Two half-Filipino brothers in a violent California

Suzy Hansen, a former editor at Salon, is an editor at the New York Observer.

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