At the center of Sister Noon is Lizzie Hayes, a member of the San Francisco elite with a lively and compassionate heart. Lizzie serves on the board of The Ladies Relief and Protection Society Home, known as the Brown Ark, an apt description of its somber fašade. The Brown Ark houses orphans and children whose parents are unable to provide for their basic needs. In 1890's San Francisco, Lizzie dedicates her days to those good works defined as respectable by that particular society.
When Mrs. Mary E. Pleasant requests Lizzie's aid in placing a young girl named Jenny at the home, Lizzie has no problem finding the child a bed. Later, as Lizzie's so-called relationship with Mrs. Pleasant becomes grist for the gossip mill, Lizzie's first inclination is to go along with the ladies' demands to shun the infamous Mrs. Pleasant, but she grows ever more uncomfortable and a small rebellion is born, seething under her outwardly placid demeanor.
As for little Jenny, a five-year-old child of questionable parentage, she is a convenient target for the petty meanness of the other girls at the home. As a result, the tormented Jenny longs for escape to a place of safety.
When Mr. Finny, a shady con man, contacts Lizzie Hayes, he insinuates that there is reason to doubt her own personal history and possible connection to Jenny. Seeking more specific information via the household of Mrs. Pleasant, a woman who after all is privy to many of the city's darkest secrets, Lizzie is further confused but determined to unravel the mystery that confronts her. A truly stalwart soul, Lizzie is eventually forced to consider a life-changing decision.
Sister Noon is peppered with idiosyncratic details in an era when newspaper articles frequently include personal opinion, excess and flowery verbiage and the "proper" phrasing of a society far too conscious of its every nuance. Hyperbole is common, as well as the exaltation of virtue and condemnation of vice. The unconventional is always suspect and carefully scrutinized for moral weakness. In other words, the upper classes are righteous busybodies, capable of destroying a reputation in an afternoon of tea, biscuits and rumors.
Karen Joy Fowler captures Victorian San Francisco beautifully. Every scene is rich with historical detail, the sense of place extraordinary. Life in the Brown Ark is revealed with all its shabby refinement dressed in good intentions, its flaws hidden in shadowy rooms like unwelcome guests. The author's critical eye misses nothing. This novel is a small jewel, awash with the restrained emotions so familiar in such a socially constricted society. Fowler's Lizzie Hayes rises above her circumstances, fulfilling the promise of a life honorably lived, her goodness sustained throughout in a triumph over circumstances.