Fic­tion

I, Sarah Steinway

Mary E. Carter

By – April 9, 2019

Sarah Stein­way, sev­en­ty-five years old, is a sur­vivor of the cat­a­stroph­ic 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, she describes her expe­ri­ences for future read­ers (if there are any). She writes of death, beau­ty, and sav­agery (there is an unfor­get­table scene of a vicious bat­tle between shore­birds). 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.

As with most dystopi­an nov­els, the read­er is anx­ious to know the cause of the killing cat­a­stro­phe. Appar­ent­ly, at first, the water lev­el increas­es of an inch or two every oth­er week were 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.

This is a very Jew­ish nov­el. Sarah pro­vides midrashim (com­men­tary) on the Torah. We are treat­ed to 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, Jew­ish ref­er­ences crop up fre­quent­ly. Sarah writes lov­ing­ly about her hus­band Daniel, her bash­ert. She 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; drowned Marin Coun­ty might be a shtetl giv­en its den­si­ty of Jews.

One ele­ment in the nov­el is par­tic­u­lar­ly per­plex­ing. Sarah has sev­er­al oppor­tu­ni­ties to go to high­er ground in New Mex­i­co – to choose life” rather than bear sur­vival. She choos­es to remain in her tree­house, close to her great­est love, her Tal­iesin house, designed by a stu­dent of Frank Lloyd Wright. Her love for the house is woven into her love for her late hus­band, Daniel. In the Acknowl­edge­ments, Mary Carter describes the nov­el as a love let­ter to her Tal­iesin home. Prox­im­i­ty to a drowned house seems like a poor trade-off for years of soli­tude and depri­va­tion above a cat­a­stroph­ic flood. Per­haps one has to love a house deeply to understand.

Inger Saphire-Bern­stein is a health pol­i­cy pro­fes­sion­al with exten­sive expe­ri­ence across mul­ti­ple health care deliv­ery set­tings and the insur­ance indus­try. She has pub­lished a num­ber of arti­cles and papers in the health pol­i­cy field.

Discussion Questions

Sarah is an anti­hero for our age: a sev­en­ty-five-year-old woman, armed with her own chutz­pah and wit, a cow­boy hat, a rab­bini­cal ordi­na­tion, and a shot­gun that she’s still fig­ur­ing out how to use. The nov­el is set in the near future, in which a glob­al flood is steadi­ly devour­ing the hous­es and Cost­cos of the world, but I, Sarah Stein­way has a sen­si­bil­i­ty and an imme­di­a­cy that grounds us and grips us from the open­ing scene. Sarah wres­tles with both her phys­i­cal and spir­i­tu­al sur­vival. As a self-iden­ti­fied sec­u­lar Jew faced with an apoc­a­lypse of bib­li­cal pro­por­tions, she turns to reli­gion — not nec­es­sar­i­ly for answers, but for sur­vival tac­tics. This book, and its pro­tag­o­nist, are nev­er afraid of con­fronting the Big Ques­tions, nor con­tent to set­tle with easy answers. The sto­ry­telling is by turns very fun­ny and very seri­ous, con­fi­dent and uncom­pro­mis­ing­ly weird. Mary E. Carter has a voice with unques­tion­able pow­er, and we look for­ward to read­ing more from her.