Sarah Canary traces the difficult adventures of Chinese laborer Chin Ah Kin, who discovers a woman at the edge of his western American camp who does not speak any language he can understand. Wondering if she has been sent as a test from the gods, Chin begins a trek through the Washington Territory in an effort to return her to her home. A misunderstanding lands him in jail, where to save his own life he is forced to act as a hangman for Tom, a Native American convicted of murder. Chin finds that the woman he has been trying to help has been committed to the asylum at Steilacoom, where she acquires the name Sarah Canary. He then takes a job there, while figuring out how to free her. At the asylum, he meets BJ, an inmate who suffers sporadic delusions that he does not exist. The three of them escape from the asylum and find brief shelter in the cabin of Burke, an Irish naturalist, but Burke’s companion, the huckster and Civil War veteran Harold, steals Sarah Canary in the middle of the night.
Chin and BJ track Harold to Seabeck, where the latter is exhibiting Sarah as the “Alaskan Wild Woman,” and Adelaide Dixon, a suffragist and proponent of free love, is lecturing. After the show, Harold attempts to rape Sarah Canary, who stabs him with a chopstick. Dixon comes upon the scene and mistakes Sarah Canary for the fugitive Lydia Palmer, who is accused of murdering her husband. Adelaide then escapes with Sarah Canary, while the hotel bar is destroyed by men enraged by her speech. The two women board a steamer bound for San Francisco. Chin again finds himself fearing for his life after one of the hotel residents is found murdered in the morning; he and BJ attempt to follow Sarah Canary’s steamer in a canoe, which capsizes. They are rescued and put aboard the steamer.
After the characters reach San Francisco, Harold abducts Adelaide and demands that Chin trade her for Sarah Canary. At the ensuing rendezvous, Chin saves Adelaide from a tiger, and they discover that Sarah Canary has disappeared. Meanwhile, the real Lydia Palmer is on trial. She is acquitted and goes to visit Adelaide. A mob gathers outside Adelaide’s hotel, and BJ is killed in the resulting violence. Meanwhile, Chin and Adelaide have fallen in love with each other. However, Chin returns to China, carrying with him the strange and terrifying memories of his time in America.
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