Carter, Mary E. “I, Sarah Steinway”, Tovah Miriam, 2017.
At age 75, Sarah Steinway survives a catastrophic flood by moving into her treehouse located on the northern shoreline of the San Francisco Bay. From her perch she sees a rise in sea level that engulfs the entire landscape for as far as she can see. She manages to survive in her treehouse for five years and records the flood, narrates her survival, and adds to her story with biting humor. Somewhat sheepishly as a secular Jew, Sarah turns for comfort to Torah. Instead of finding solace, she argues with God, becomes very angry and asks the eternal question, “Why me?” The story unfolds with terrifying beauty as protagonist Sarah Steinway grapples with survival in a future climate change disaster. Mary Carter’s novel is a totally original imagining of a post-apocalyptic world, lightly using the tropes of dystopian and disaster fiction while depending on ingenuity and emotional depth to carry the story.
It was the Emperor Floods that covered the Pacific coast cities and erased the boundaries of the San Francisco Bay, leaving no dry shore until New Mexico. With a manual typewriter, in her treehouse perch above the black waters of the former San Francisco Bay, Sara describes her experiences for future readers (if there are any). She writes of death, beauty, and savagery She meets several interesting survivors who arrive at her treehouse, including two rabbis. And she starts to think about God and turns to the Torah.
We want to know the cause of the flood catastrophe. At first, it appears that the water level increased an inch or two every other week and it was barely noticed. The people were told it was ‘fake news’ and that reports of rising waters were false, going against visual evidence; most people complied. Periodic high tides and flooding suddenly became the Emperor Floods that drowned all before it and never receded.
Sarah gives commentaries on the Torah. We have an interview with Noah’s wife, an explanation as to why Pharaoh’s daughter drew Moses out of the Nile, and a return to Noah and God’s promise to never again flood the world. Quotes from Pirkei Avot head each chapter. Aside from these formal efforts, there are other Jewish references. Sarah writes lovingly about her husband and recognizes a congruence with Sarah in the Torah, who laughed when told she would give birth at ninety, while Sarah Steinway births a treehouse at seventy-five. And Sarah Steinway says she will not be edited out, like Noah’s wife and Sarah. Oddly, many of the people Sarah meets before and during the flood are Jewish.
Mary Carter infuses her futuristic novel with a rich vocabulary that propels readers into the curious world of Sarah Steinway and holds them there. While the story moves forward, Carter goes in and out of Steinway’s mind to describe with wry humor the passersby, human and animal, that float in and out of her life and the predicament of living high above an ever-rising flood.
Sarah Steinway is starchy and independent to the very end and we cannot help but love her.