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An aging treehouse dweller confronts a disaster and thrives

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Sarah Steinway is a stubborn, angry, resourceful, funny, inquisitive and independent woman. Those traits help her survive in Mary E. Carter’s thought-provoking debut novel “I, Sarah Steinway.”

Mary E. Carter discusses, signs “I, Sarah Steinway” at 6 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 23, at Bookworks, 4022 Rio Grande NW.

Mind you, Sarah Steinway is 75 years old, a painter, a wordsmith, an inveterate punster. She’s likable.

“I wanted her to be old, old and succeed at living. Someone who won’t be taken advantage of,” said Carter, a Placitas resident.

“I don’t want to read about old people getting Alzheimer’s and dying. There’s a lot of old people dying in books. Enough already! Or old ladies who are charming and cute. Sarah is not that,” she added.

Sarah is the joyful, complex hero figure in Carter’s post-apocalyptic novel set in the not-so-distant future.

The widowed Sarah seeks safety from the rising tides. Safety takes the form of a custom-made treehouse – more of a tree home – above the flooding waters of San Pablo Bay in northern California.

But for Steinway, the treehouse is really a chance to spend her time thinking, meditating, typing on an old Underwood. In solitude, she feels protected and sustained by creeping, edible kudzu.

Even solitude can be an emotional risk.

“Whether, and if, you can just sit there and be bored senseless at times,” Sarah speaks to the reader.

“That, in between bouts of sheer terror, desperate thirst, wobbling hallucinations, drowsy ennui and crazy hopefulness – that is your life if you are a lone survivor.”

The flooding waters remind her of the biblical story of Noah and the deluge. Was there a Mrs. Noah? she wants to know.

The sight of a dead baby floating by the treehouse gets Sarah thinking about the story of the baby Moses rescued by Pharaoh’s daughter. Sarah also wonders about her namesake, the first Sarah. Why doesn’t she speak up?

Treehouse Sarah contributes her own interpretation to the ancient commentaries on Old Testament stories.

“Here’s a woman in a life-and-death situation. She reaches out to the Torah (the first five books of the Bible). She gets things a little bit wrong, but she’s reaching out … she looks into things,” Carter said of the lead character.

After some time Sarah follows the biblical instruction to accept strangers. So she opens her treehouse to two quirky, endearing rabbis, a dog and a cat – to live with her for awhile.

The cat, Wallace Barnaby, is the first to appear. Then Rav Mordachai (Mort) Mendel, with his dog, Laddy Labradorian. The cat, it turns out, is Mort’s.

Mort and Laddy arrive in: “… an industrial sized mixing bowl. It is the kind of bowl, big as a Volkswagen, found in commercial kitchens for 2,000 cookies. …”

Mort is initially interested in talking about karma and dharma and sharing with Sarah what he learned from yogis in India.

Sarah and Mort dine on fish from the bay, canned beans and olives and some mighty fine wine, Chateau Lafitte.

The other human who shows up is Zelda Wurlitzer, Rabbi Emerita.

Zelda is nuts about hugging. Hugs Sarah and Mort, hugs Wallace and Laddy, and then a group hug. The hugging prompts Mort to give, you guessed it, prayerful thanks. Turns out Mort and Zelda are old buddies.

Sarah reflects on her solo life, feeling desperate about this instant, accidental community. She feels “surrounded by company, noise, and confusion, a regular performing troupe they are. … Seventy-five years I’m a secular Jew, and nary a rabbi crosses my threshold. Now, suddenly, I’m all chock-a-block with rabbis. Oy!”

The rabbis and pets leave. Before they do, the rabbis tell Sarah the world needs more people like her.

“I, Sarah Steinway” was a Quarter Finalist in the Publishers Weekly Booklife Prize.