At the center of Sister Noon is the intrepid 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 but sturdy façade. The Brown Ark houses children whose parents are unable to provide for their basic needs, such as food and shelter. In 1890's San Francisco, Lizzie dedicates her days to good works, a respectable and valued member of society.
When Mrs. Mary Ellen Pleasant requests Lizzie's aid in placing a young girl, Jenny, at the home, Lizzie finds the child a bed and anticipates no complications because of her generosity. As it happens, Lizzie is indeed called upon to account for her decision. Later, as Lizzie's questionable relationship with Mrs. Pleasant becomes grist for gossip, Lizzie's first inclination is accede to the ladies' demands and shun the infamous Mrs. Pleasant. Yet she grows more uncomfortable with this compliance and a small rebellion seethes beneath 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 hints at a possible connection to Jenny. Seeking more specific information via the household of Mrs. Pleasant, a woman, after all, who 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 act on her beliefs and consider a life-changing decision.
Sister Noon is peppered with idiosyncratic details at a time when newspaper articles include personal opinion, flowery verbiage and the excessive phrasing of a society far too conscious of its every nuance. Hyperbole is rampant, as well as the exaltation of virtue and condemnation of vice. The unconventional is suspect by its very nature and carefully scrutinized for the taint of immorality. Plainly, the upper classes are righteous busybodies who delight in destroying a reputation over afternoon of tea.
Fowler captures Victorian San Francisco beautifully. Her scenes are richly painted with historical detail and an extraordinary sense of place. The trivia and occasional drama of life in the Brown Ark is revealed in all its shabby refinement, dressed in good intentions, flaws hidden in shadowy rooms like unwelcome guests. 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 personal triumph over circumstances.Luan Gaines/2003.