“The Pelican Bar” by Karen Joy Fowler begins with Norah, the main character, telling about the presents she received from her family for her fifteenth birthday. She tells how she didn’t even expect a celebration, much less a party, due to her using lots of foul language and being disrespectful and ungrateful. The presents are nice, but all she really wanted was to get together with her friends, Enoch and Kayla, who her parents don’t approve of.
When the party finally dies out late at night, Norah goes up to her room to get ready for her friends to come by at midnight. Enoch climbs up into her room through the window, then goes downstairs to let Kayla in because she’s already pretty wasted. Once they are both in Norah’s room, Enoch brings out some mushrooms called hawk’s eyes and they use them until the room starts swirling and Norah falls asleep.
The next morning, the still-tripping Norah is woken up by two weird looking people and is proclaimed to be high. Her mom eventually has to help her get dressed, and when Norah is finished the two people drag her outside and put her into their car. She tries to reach out to her mom, but is pulled away and driven to the airport.
While Norah is on the plane with them, her mother goes around returning all of her birthday gifts. Norah also sobers up and realizes the odd eyes and mouth on the woman and man are normal, but there was nowhere she could go.
After they land, Norah is taken to an old motel and told it is her new home. She’s roughly handed off to an elderly woman who tells Norah she is her new mom and needs to be called Mama Strong. Mama Strong points out that she doesn’t love Norah though, and to always obey, and she takes Norah up into her new room where ten other girls are sleeping.
Norah asks about a toothbrush but is told off. Then, she is given clothes to change into, showed to her bed, and told to go to sleep. She tries to talk to the girl next to her, but is ignored. She also realizes that nobody is ever going to turn the lights off.
The next morning, the girl next to Norah tells Mama Strong she was talking to her, and is given five points. Norah tells Mama Strong that she never said not to talk, but Mama Strong asks which of them is lying, and when Norah says that she is not, she loses more points for talking back. She is already at minus forty, where at plus ten she would’ve gotten a toothbrush.
Later, there is a group session held where all the members of Norah’s family, the Power girls, are told to write down five things about them that are true. Norah comes up with three and is told to share. When she does, Mama Strong says she is lying for the second time that day and invites the other girls to comment. They do, telling Norah that she is stuck on herself and that nobody honest ends up here.
Three months pass and Norah finally makes enough points to go outside, in a fenced yard where she could smell the ocean, and she tells about the measly classes she takes after group time, and how they’re all multiple choice and controlled by the teacher. She lost points by pointing out an incorrect key was being used by one of the teachers.
It takes Norah eleven months to get enough points to write to her parents, and she discreetly pleads for her parents to come take her home. Mama Strong laughs at her, but mails it anyway.
The conditions at the motel are horrible—the food is rotting, there is no medical care, there are bug bites and upset stomachs, and occasionally people disappear. Norah notices a couple of these disappearances, one being a girl named Jetta who couldn’t have gotten the 100 points needed to leave since she was new.
Just before Norah’s birthday, she lost all of her points for not going in-depth enough in group time. Her secrets weren’t enough so she’d begun stealing other stories from tv, but was called out and punished. She was sent to TAP, Think Again Position, as punishment.
In TAP, students lay face down and are only allowed a shift every three hours. If they didn’t obey, they were put into restraint, where a staff member held them down and pulled their arms up as far as they could go, and then some. Norah was sent to TAP for lying in group session because Mama Strong was tired of her antics. She lasted two weeks before admitting that she belonged there and deserved this. Even though TAP was bad, Norah thought the lack of the dark was worse at night.
For Norah’s sixteenth birthday, she got two postcards from her parents. They were playing tourist a few miles away at somewhere called the Pelican Bar. She imagines being outside and free and pledges to herself never to tell Mama Strong about the Pelican Bar.
Her seventeenth birthday passes by without her noticing, but her parents send some more irrelevant postcards. Norah also realizes that the night supervisor doesn’t like her, and mews at Norah until Mama Strong notices and deducts twenty points from Norah.
Mama Strong starts to follow Norah closely because she thinks Norah has some sort of secret, and Norah is sent to TAP many times—to the point that her thighs and back are bruised.
The girls in the Power family are disappearing, and Norah is one of the few originals left. A new girl named Chloe shows up next to Norah and tries to talk to her, but Norah ignores her and tells Mama Strong about her in the morning. Another girl tries to blame Norah, but Mama Strong basically tells her to be quiet and they put her [chloe?] in restraint for talking.
After, Mama Strong tells the girls to make a list of five reasons why they were set here. Norah does, including ‘I am a bad daughter,’ ‘I am still carrying around my BS,’ and ‘I am ungrateful.’ She can’t come up with any more and Mama Strong call her out on it. Mama Strong tries to get Norah to spill about the Pelican Bar, but Norah refuses to say anything. Norah is pinned by Mama Strong’s questions and scrabbles for two reasons to cover the Pelican Bar.
Norah challenges Mama Strong’s humanity, calling this place somewhere no human should be, and Mama Strong becomes even scarier. She tells Norah that she could send her somewhere else, and Norah knows that wherever this place is, it must be worse. So, Norah comes up with the two reasons that pop into her head.
The ones she comes up with are ‘I am a liar,’ and ‘I am a bad person,’ due to being pressured hard enough by Mama Strong. Norah is sent to TAP after, but at least it isn’t Mama Strong’s Somewhere Else.
After this, Chloe seems to be Mama Strong’s current focus now that Norah has turned seventeen. Chloe poses a challenge for Mama Strong since she cannot hold still, and Mama Strong seems up for that.
One day, Mama Strong goes up just before breakfast to Norah and tells her to follow her, which she does until they get outside, just behind the motel gate. Mama Strong then counts out fifty dollars and tells Norah she can go.
Norah is absolutely terrified as she slowly moves towards the gate, refusing to believe that Mama Strong is serious. When she finally makes it outside, Mama Strong closes the gate behind her and locks it. Norah begins walking and doesn’t stop, not wanting to end the illusion of freedom.
She walks through this town, noticing stands of food and the functionality of the town even though Mama Strong’s motel is only a bit down the road. She considers buying food but doesn’t feel up to talking to someone else. Norah walks until she finally reaches the ocean.
She wades in and just stands, the cuts and bruises stinging until they finally stop and the money in her pocket is soaked. She sees all of the tourists sitting around and wants to tell everyone that, miles away, children are being kept and starved, but she figures they won’t believe her even if she told. Eventually, Norah walks out to a market that is by a river and realizes one of the vendors is a man who once put her in restraint.
When he sees her, he offers some bananas for her birthday and tells her that they have to let her go at eighteen. Norah receives a bracelet from a woman behind her who also mentions that they have to let her go at eighteen since it’s the law. The woman offers something else for her birthday, but Norah just asks for directions to the Pelican Bar. She bought clothes, a soda, and tickets to ride on the boat. Once on it, she does all the things she imagined while inside the motel, and the boat drops her into the water a few meters from shore.
She briefly twirls around in the water, reveling in the freedom, before going onto shore and buying Chloe a postcard, telling her to ‘come here,’ and that ‘I’m a bad person’ After this, Norah goes and buys herself a fish but doesn’t finish, and lounges around until she falls asleep, only awoken by someone who wanted her to be on the last boat back.
When Norah gets back to the main island, she notices Mama Strong sitting at an outdoor bar towards the edge of the marketplace. She feels there is no way back unless she talks to Mama Strong. So she does.
Mama Strong criticizes Norah’s money usage, and Norah asks if she cares if she goes hungry, to which Mama Strong just says she’s made Norah stronger—albeit not strong enough. Mama Strong says she doesn’t care.
Norah only knows she wants to be clean, fed, not hurting, and in the dark, and tells Mama Strong that once she runs out of money, she’ll ask somebody for help and they’ll eventually help her. Norah recalls that Mama Strong said she would change after all of this, but she feels empty, as if she vanished instead.
Mama Strong just swirls her glass, drinks it, and calls the world pretty. She also says humans do more than what she’d done, and Norah notices two men coming up behind her. Norah is sure they’ve come for her, but when they pass by and begin singing, she questions their humanity as well.
The Pelican Bar ends with Mama Strong saying, ‘Very pretty world.’
So, the first technique I tracked was Norah being disobedient, mainly because she usually didn’t listen to someone telling her how to do this/that, and because she sometimes contradicted herself on top of that (highlighted in green). This is present in varying degrees throughout the story, and mainly drives the narrative because Norah deliberately disobeying her parents so often causes them to send her to Mama Strong anyway.
And then there were a handful of nights when Norah didn’t come home and turned off her phone so they all thought she was in the city in the apartment of some man she’d probably met on the internet and was probably dead.
This quote fully encompasses my thought of someone being disobedient. It represents this in the way of directly going against her parents, then adding in a touch of characterization for Norah in the way of how her brain works. I wouldn’t think it’s such an extreme jump from dead phone to dead somewhere—seeing as my own parents get so worked up about instances when they can’t contact me for whatever mundane reason I provide, but the notion that Norah provides caught my eye. She is speaking in the voice of her parents, saying that they would think that, instead of being dead, she’d be with some man she met online and dead. This provides extra information about the state of the relationship of her and her parents, while also being a driving force to the inciting incident of Norah being shipped off.
The second technique I tracked is whenever Norah’s thoughts/opinions were overridden by someone else, or sometimes even by herself. She morphs her actions or thoughts into something more extreme in the case of her parents, but when she meets Mama Strong and tries to do that as well, she is shut down and punished almost immediately. It gets to the point where Norah will alter her outward opinions because they get her in trouble or sent to TAP, and she does this to herself after Mama Strong does simply because she wants to avoid the consequences—almost like censoring herself before she speaks.
Norah held her breath. In that instant, her brain produced the two missing reasons. “I am a liar,” she said. She heard her own desperation. “I am a bad person.”
This quote is one of the best example of this technique in this piece. It shows Norah’s struggle to not speak her mind after the initial outburst—saying the motel wasn’t any place for humans—and she tries to backtrack. Her brain, in the state of panic she is currently in, spewed out two reasons in order to complete the five Mama Strong originally told her to do. Norah doesn’t believe these reasons, but she makes herself say them to escape the worst punishment or Mama Strong’s Somewhere Else. Even though she’s still sent to TAP for this, Norah is just grateful that Mama Strong didn’t send her anywhere else.
- Why do you think Norah began to act out in the first place, even before her birthday party?
- Why do you think Mama Strong does what she does?
- What is Chloe’s significance to Norah?
- What would you do if your parents sent you somewhere like Mama Strong’s motel?