Sister Noon

Sister Noon

by Karen Joy Fowler


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Loosely based in historical fact, Sister Noon is a wryly funny, playfully mysterious, and totally subversive novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club.

Lizzie Hayes, a member of the San Francisco elite, is a seemingly docile, middle-aged spinster praised for her volunteer work with the Ladies Relief and Protection Society Home, or "The Brown Ark". All she needs is the spark that will liberate her from the ruling conventions.

When the wealthy and well-connected, but ill-reputed Mary Ellen Pleasant shows up at the Brown Ark, Lizzie is drawn to her. It is the beautiful, but mysterious Mary Ellen, an outcast among the women of the elite because of her notorious past and her involvement in voodoo, who will eventually hold the key to unlocking Lizzie's rebellious nature.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780452283282
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 05/28/2002
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 957,462
Product dimensions: 5.32(w) x 7.97(h) x 0.73(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Karen Joy Fowler, a PEN/Faulkner and California Book Award winner, is the author of six novels (two of them New York Times bestsellers) and four short story collections. She has been a Dublin IMPAC nominee, and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. She lives in Santa Cruz, California.


Davis, California

Date of Birth:

February 7, 1950

Place of Birth:

Bloomington, Indiana


B.A., The University of California, Berkeley, 1972; M.A., The University of California, Davis, 1974

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

By the 1890s, San Francisco was an entirely different city from the one Mrs. Radford had left behind. The streets were paved. The sand was landscaped. Cable cars ran up and down Nob Hill. The Railroad Kings were old or dead, and also the Bonanza Kings, and also the Lawyer Kings. Society had arrived and settled, its standards strictly maintained by Ned "I would rather see my sister dead than waltzing" Greenway. Fashionable women belonged to the Conservative Set, the Fast Set, the Smart Set, the Serious Set, the Very Late at Night Set, or the highly respectable Dead Slow Set.

    There were still many more men than women in the city. This imbalance resulted in a high percentage of unrequited passions. Afflicted men consoled themselves with horse racing, graft, and most frequently, liquor. Any woman whose nerves did not compel her to depend on Lydia Pinkham's Vegetable Compound (alcohol, dandelion, chamomile, and licorice) or Jayne's Carminative Balm (alcohol and opium) or Dover's Powder (opium and ipecac) could count on the advantage of sobriety in her dealings with men. The destabilizing effects of widespread heartache combined with widespread drunkenness were somewhat alleviated by the rigging of local elections.

    The city was propelled in equal parts by drunken abuse and sober recompense. In those days every steamer that docked in San Francisco Bay was fitted with a large box. Each box was the same—pinewood, a sizable slot edged with brass, and the words "Give to the Ladies' Relief and Protection Society Home" burned in a circle about it. After the wreck ofthe SS Rio de Janeiro, one of these boxes was found floating past Alcatraz Island, and miraculously, the money was still inside. When levered open, the box contained rubles and yen, lire and pesos, all shuffled together like cards.

    Successive treasurers for the Society counted out coins stamped with the profiles of queens they couldn't name and birds they'd never seen. Some of the coins were worn so thin there was no picture at all, just a polished disk with no clue remaining as to its history or origin. Occasionally during rough seas someone would donate a holy medallion, usually Saint Christopher. One box held a single amethyst earring with a small drop pearl.

    It was still charity, it was still begging, but it bore the semblance of adventure.

    Lizzie Hayes wore one of the more puzzling coins on a chain around her neck, so whenever they looked at her, the people of San Francisco would be reminded that she needed their money. The coin was imprinted with a mermaid curled into a circle, her hair so wide and wild it netted the tip of her own tail. If anyone asked, Lizzie said it was the currency of Atlantis.

    Lizzie Hayes had been a volunteer for the Ladies' Relief Home for almost ten years, its treasurer for three. She had few intimate friends, but attended two churches, Grace Church and St. Luke's Episcopal, which was good for her soul and also for fund-raising. In 1890 she was a spinster who had just seen her fortieth birthday.

    She was working in the cupola one day in January, sorting through a box of donated books, when one of the older girls came to tell her Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant was at the door. "the front door," the girl said. "She'd like to speak to you."

    Culling books was surprisingly dirty work, and Lizzie could feel a layer of grit on her hands and face. She wiped herself with her apron and went downstairs at once. She'd never spoken with Mrs. Pleasant, never been in the same room with her, although two years earlier she'd waited on an overloaded streetcar while the driver made an unscheduled stop so that Mrs. Pleasant could ride. Mrs. Pleasant walked the half-block to the car, and it seemed to Lizzie that she had walked as slowly as possible. She had given the driver an enormous, showy tip.

    Lizzie had also seen Mrs. Pleasant on occasion in her opulent Brewster buggy with its matched horses from the Stanford stables. Mrs. Pleasant dressed like a servant, but she had her own driver in green livery and a top hat, and also her own footman to attend her.

    If she hadn't ever seen her, Lizzie would still have recognized Mrs. Pleasant's face. It was one of the most famous in the city, appearing often in editorial cartoons, particularly in the Wasp. (Although actually the last drawing had not used her face. Instead, a black crow had peered out from underneath Mrs. Pleasant's habitual bonnet.)

    "Now, I never cared a feather's weight for public opinion," Mrs. Pleasant had been once quoted as saying, "for it's the ghostliest thing I ever did see." It was fortunate she thought so. Here are just a few of the things people said about Mary Ellen Pleasant:

    She'd buried three husbands before she turned forty, and in her sixties had still been the secret mistress of prominent and powerful men. At seventy years of age, she'd looked no older than fifty.

    She had a small green snake tattooed in a curl around one breast.

    She could restore the luster to pearls by wearing them.

    Although she worked as Thomas Bell's housekeeper, she was as rich as a railroad magnate's widow. Some of the city's wealthiest men came to her for financial advice. Thomas Bell owed his entire fortune to her.

    She was an angel of charity. She had donated five thousand dollars of her own money to aid the victims of yellow fever during the epidemic in New Orleans. When she got to heaven, she would soon have the blessed organized and sending cups of cool water to the sinners below.

    She practiced voodoo and had once sunk a boat full of silver with a curse.

    She was a voodoo queen and the colored in San Francisco both worshipped and feared her. She could start and stop pregnancies; she would, for a price, make a man die of love.

    She trafficked in prostitution and had a number of special white protégées with whom her relationships were irregular, intimate, and possibly sapphic. She was responsible for all of poor Sarah Althea Hill Sharon Terry's mischiefs and misfortunes.

    She ran a home for unwed mothers and secretly sold the infant girls to the Chinese tongs.

    She was the best cook in San Francisco.

    Here is what people said about Lizzie Hayes:

    She would have married William Fletcher if she could have got him.

    No one had asked Mrs. Pleasant into the parlor. Lizzie found her standing just inside the heavy oak door under the portrait of philanthropist Horace Hawes, with his brooding Lincolnesque looks. No one had offered to take her wrap, a bright purple shawl, which she nevertheless had removed and carried over one arm.

    Lizzie Hayes had not kept Mrs. Pleasant waiting, but neither had she taken off her work apron. Mrs. Pleasant was better dressed. She wore a skirt of polished black alpaca, a shirtwaist with a white collar, gold gypsy hoops through her ears, and her usual outdated Quaker bonnet, purple with a wide brim. She noticed the apron at once; Lizzie saw her famous mismated eyes, one blue, one brown, flicker over it, but her facial expression did not change. Her skin was finely wrinkled, like crushed silk, and she smelled of lavender.

    There were no courteous preliminaries. "I've brought you a girl," Mrs. Pleasant said. She'd come to California forty years earlier with the miners, but never lost the southern syrup of her vowels. "Named Jenny Ijub. She's just off a boat from Panama. Her mother took sick on the voyage and was buried at sea. When I ask how old she is, she holds up all five fingers. Quiet little thing. She doesn't seem to know her father."

    One of her hands rested on the little girl's hair. Mrs. Pleasant dipped her head as she talked, so her face was hidden by the bonnet brim. "I have my friends at the docks. I'm known to care for such cases." As her face vanished, her voice grew softer, more confiding. She knew how to make white people comfortable.

     She knew how to make them uncomfortable. Where had she really gotten the child? Lizzie felt the contrast between them. Mrs. Pleasant was tall, elegant, and spotless. Lizzie was short, dusty, fat as a toad. She was a person who rumpled, and not a person who rumpled attractively.

    She cleared her throat. "We have a waiting list." Lizzie would have said this to anyone. It was the simple truth. So many in need. "And I'd have to be certain of her age. She's quite small. We don't take children under four years."

    "I'll have to find somewhere else, then." Mrs. Pleasant smiled down at Lizzie. It was an understanding smile. Seventy-some years old and Mrs. Pleasant still had all her own splendid teeth. She stooped a little and aimed her smile farther down. "Don't you worry, Jenny. We'll find someone who wants you."

    Lizzie looked for the first time at the girl. She was dark-haired and sallow-skinned. She had sand on her shoes and stockings, it was impossible to get to the Home without picking up sand, but was otherwise as clean as could be. Neatly and simply dressed. Hatless, though someone—Mrs. Pleasant?—had woven a bright bit of red ribbon into her hair. Her cheeks were flushed as if she were too warm, or embarrassed. She did not look up, but Lizzie imagined that if she could see the girl's eyes they would be large and tragic. She held her back stiffly; you could deduce the eyes from that.

    Lizzie hated saying no to anyone about anything. Saying no, however you disguised it, was a confession of your own limitations. Not only was it unhelpful, it was galling. She reached out and touched Jenny's arm. "I have some discretion. Since she really has no one. We'll find a bed somehow. Would you like to stay with us, Jenny?"

    Jenny made no response. Her eyes were still lowered; she had one knuckle firmly hooked behind her front teeth, and her spare hand wrapped around the cloth of Mrs. Pleasant's skirt. When Mrs. Pleasant was ready to leave, Jenny's fingers would have to be pried apart.

    "That's lovely, then," said Mrs. Pleasant. "Now I know she'll have the best of care."

    "We might even find a family to take her. Be better if she had a bit of sparkle. Don't put your fingers in your mouth, dear," Lizzie said. She reached into her apron pocket and pulled out a silver bell. "This is how we call Matron," she told Jenny. She rang the bell twice. "We have two Jennys already, but they are both much older than you. So we must call you Little Jenny. Shall we do that?"

    The bell sounded very loud. Jenny's fingers twisted inside Mrs. Pleasant's skirt. Mrs. Pleasant knelt. She pulled a violet-hemmed handkerchief from her sleeve and wiped Jenny's mouth with it. She had the face of a grandmother. "Listen," she said. "You must be brave now. Remember that I'm your friend. I'll send you a present soon so you'll see I don't forget you, either." Mrs. Pleasant said these things quietly, intimately. It was not for the matron to hear, but she arrived just in time to do so.

    "I hope your present is something that can be shared," the matron told Jenny as she took her away. "If you have things the others don't, you can't expect them not to mind."

    The matron was a fifty-year-old woman named Nell Harris. She had come to the Home as a charity case; she had stayed on as an employee. She had soft-cooked features and a shifting seascape for a body. Her bosom lay on the swell of her stomach, rising and falling dramatically with her breath. Her most defining characteristic was that no one had ever made a good first impression on her.

    She took Jenny down to the kitchen and offered her a large slice of wholesome bread. "Mrs. Pleasant gave me cake," Jenny told her. The kitchen counters were piled with dishes, half clean, half not. Two girls in aprons were washing; another was drying. That one smiled at Jenny and flicked her dishrag. The air was wet and warm and smelled of pork grease.

    "And that's all it takes to make you think she's nice as pie. She gave you away pretty fast, didn't she?" Nell said.

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"A playful, mysterious, highly imaginative narrative set in the San Francisco of the 1890's...Robust, sly, witty, elegant, unexpected and never, ever, boring." —Margot Livesey, The New York Times Book Review

"Sister Noon is funny, lyrical, spooky, inspired . . . A work of enchanting rumination-and one of the year's best reads." —The Seattle Times

"Fowler's prose is full of shimmering melancholy, and a ruminative irony that brings her characters and their world alive in the most unexpected ways...a dazzling book." —Jonathan Lethem

Reading Group Guide

The fiction of Karen Joy Fowler has been hailed as "powerfully imagined and delightfully readable" (The Washington Post). The New York Times praises her "willingness to take detours, her unapologetic delight in the odd historical fact, her shadowy humor, and the elegant unruliness of her language." Now this critically acclaimed writer introduces readers to Lizzie Hayes, a remarkable heroine born into a wild, dazzling, unrestrained and uninhibited age that could not have existed at any other time in our nation's history.

San Francisco during the Gilded Age is a city bursting at the seamsa thrilling, electric, somewhat unsavory place of newly paved streets and cable cars running up and down Nob Hill, of unbridled egos and flamboyant ambition, of gentility, gossip, and greed... where great fortunes and dynasties are being built that will outlast many of the city's colorful, eccentric inhabitants.

A spinster just past forty, Lizzie is at once a part of and separate from, the city's dazzling vitality and ostentatious elitism. A devout, fiercely intelligent woman given to ironic self-reflection and filled with hidden passions, Lizzie spends her days as a volunteer and treasurer for the Ladies' Relief Home, a refuge for the poor and displaced commonly called the Brown Ark. It is here that Mary Ellen Pleasant, the city's most scandalous benefactress, suddenly appears one day to deposit a little girl named Jenny. This brief visit becomes the catalyst for Lizzie's gradual transformation. She has never met anyone like Mrs. Pleasant. Or Madame Christophe, as she was known in her native New Orleans, where she was born into slavery. Or Mrs. Ellen Smith, as she called herself in 1852, a strikingly beautiful widow who would become as famous for her affairs, marriages, shocking behavior, and rumored voodoo powers as for her stunningly mismatched eyes. Lizzie, who is fat, unlovely, and unloved, is intrigued and excited by this fascinating woman who opens a window onto a world Lizzie has only read about, a world as much of the imagination and senses as it is of one firmly grounded in reality. For, as Mrs. Pleasant tells her, "You can do anything you want. You don't have to be the same person your whole life."

Karen Joy Fowler's most masterful achievement, Sister Noon, is a lush, stylistically daring, brilliantly realized portrait of a vanished era and an extraordinary woman that will shimmer and haunt readers long after the final page is turned.



Karen Joy Fowler is the author of two previous novels, Sarah Canary and The Sweetheart Season, both New York Times Notable Books, as well as Black Glass, a short story collection. She was nominated for the 2002 PEN/Faulkner award for Sister Noon. She lives in Northern California.


"An astonishing voice, at once lyric and ironic, satiric and nostalgic. Fowler can tell stories that engage and enchant."
San Francisco Chronicle

"A playful, mysterious, highly imagined narrative set in the San Francisco of the 1890's... Robust, sly, witty, elegant, unexpected and never ever boring."
The New York Times Book Review

"Sister Noon is funny, lyrical, spooky, inspired... A work of enchanting ruminationand one of the year's best reads."
The Seattle Times

"Fowler has a voice like no other, lyrical, shrewd and addictive, with a quiet deadpan humor that underlies almost every sentence."

"A playful literary mystery."
Atlanta Journal-Constitution

"The novel unfolds in mysterious and, at times, supernatural ways."
Cleveland Plain Dealer

"In Sister Noon, Fowler thrillingly recreates a lost world... No contemporary writer creates characters more appealing, or examines them with greater acuity and forgiveness than she does."
—Michael Chabon, bestselling author of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay

"Reading Sister Noon is like staring at early photographs until the eyes begin to shine and your head is filled with voices which urge you to recall that these vanished lives, and your own, are stranger than you allow. A dazzling book."
—Jonathan Lethem, bestselling author of Motherless Brooklyn


  • In the Prelude, "Mrs. Smith" says that "life is loss." What do you think she means by this? Is she speaking about more than the death of her husband, who she might never have really loved? How does your opinion of this character and her statement change once you discover her "real" identity as Mary Ellen Pleasant?
  • Who and what does Mary Ellen Pleasant represent in the novel?
  • How would you describe Mrs. Pleasant's relationship with Lizzie?
  • Lizzie is described as "short, dusty, fat as a toad." How does the inner Lizzie differ from the outer woman? How does Lizzie fit into the world around her?
  • "An easy person to underestimate," Lizzie is also fiercely protective of the children in her care and single-minded of purpose once she decides to take action. How does Mrs. Pleasant become the catalyst for Lizzie's transformation?
  • How does Lizzie respond to the news about Jenny's true parentage? Is her reaction indicative of the "old" or "new" Lizzie?
  • Throughout the book, Teresa Bell remains a shadowy, ethereal character. And yet she plays a crucial role in the narrative's unfolding. What does she symbolize in the book?
  • Lizzie has an epiphany of sorts in her scene with Mr. Finney on p. 317. Has she at last become the liberated woman she always dreamed of becoming but never believed she actually would? How do her behavior and actions change after this "perfect day she would always remember?"
  • What is the significance of the séance wherein Lizzie gets to finally tell off her dead mother? Is this part of her "liberation?"
  • How does Lizzie feel about children? She is the caretaker and nurturer of many, yet has none of her own. On p. 125 we learn that Lizzie "didn't like children particularly, but they went to her heart." And on p. 244, she muses that "all children are precious to God." How does her behavior bear this out? Does her attitude toward them change during the course of the story? How does her discovery about Jenny affect these feelings?
  • What is the significance of "Sister Noon" and "Sister Night?" Which is Lizzie, and why?
  • What role does Ti Wong play in the story? How does he change after his near-fatal bout with diphtheria?
  • In the prelude to the Prelude, Mary Ellen Pleasant is quoted as saying, "Words were invented so that lies could be told." Why do you think she uses the word "lies" and not "stories," which has a far less negative and precise connotation? Is this what she believes her entire life to be, one brilliant invention after another?
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