Anna Noon is a novel about the eponymous Anna, a girl who becomes invisible. It is also about Matiss Mantenieks, the narrator who claims to be helping Anna, now a young woman, understand her past but increasingly inserts himself into her story. It is set in Anishinaabeg, a fictional town on Lake Michigan, in the aftermath of World War II.
Part I: Arrival
Part I begins when Wendell Weiss, a Lutheran minister, sponsors Allegra Avotina, a widowed Latvian displaced person who ran a fashionable pension on the Baltic Sea, for admission to the United States on condition she manage his recently inherited motel. After a turbulent transatlantic crossing and taxing train ride, Wendell’s wife Winnie welcomes Allegra and her children, the seven-year-old Anna and five-year old Andris, with a paltry meal and puts Allegra to work.
Allegra and her children have difficulty adapting to their adopted land. A harsh winter not only depletes their resources and but also isolates them in the vacant motel, which serves as their home. Zigurd Zeiss, a hypochondriacal, francophilic German, helps Allegra obtain medicine for her sick children. Elvira Evangelista, a sophisticated Portuguese seamstress, provides income by bringing her on to stitch the ensembles Careen O’Connor, the indomitable daughter of Cullen O’Connor, a boisterous lumber baron transplanted from Tuscaloosa, wants for her June wedding. Carreen props up the Avotini with fried chicken and a phonograph. And Samuel Slade, a damaged veteran serving as Police Chief, keeps a careful eye on them all.
Anna has the hardest time. When she is not running around making trouble, she retreats from reality. Soon she inhabits a fantasy world, sparked by fear of the all-seeing god Wennie and Wendell try to foist on her. There she encounters Archibald McLeish, an imaginary cat whose family Wendell’s deceased spinster sister Willa, former owner of the motel, had been feeding. Things improve with the thaw. Sally Sparrow, a classmate who could be an Indian, befriends her. Silas, Sally’s admittedly Indian grandfather, takes Anna under his wing and offers up a more benevolent (but equally omniscient) god.
Upon learning of similarities in Latvian and Indian cultures, Allegra makes Silas her business partner. Silas’s son Seth helps, rekindling a sensuality Allegra has long suppressed. At Anna’s insistence, the motel is renamed “The Big Chief Inn.” It proves to be a success, due in part to the arrival of Titus Turner, a nuclear physicist who reserves all the cabins for a Decoration Day reunion of colleagues from the Trinity bomb test. He also opens Anna’s eyes to unseen aspects of the real world and beds Allegra, who fears she will loose leverage if she becomes involved with any man from the Anishinaabeg area. Zigurd retreats to the shadows, seen only in the company of Careen’s husband James, son of unscrupulous financier Jake Jarvis.
Matiss shows restraint in Part 1, referring to himself only when it is relevant to the copious footnotes he provides for Anna’s edification.
Part I concludes with the Wendell informing Allegra, in the dead of winter, he has sold the motel to an unnamed developer, who will tear it down to build expensive lakeside vacation homes on the property.
Part II: Adaptation
Part II begins with Allegra’s assumption of the management of the Hemingway Hotel, which Zigurd owns but has heretofore failed to mention. He also owns, as Allegra has learned from Careen, the lakeside development that had cost her the dream of independence, caused her to accept a poorly paid waitress job at the Deluxe Diner, which Zigurd also owns, as she learned from Elvira and, when she could make ends meet, forced her into a marriage of convenience with despicable Zigurd, apparently no less exploitive than Wendell.
Zigurd, who refuses to adopt Anna and Andris, brings them into his hexagonal home on a bluff overlooking Lake Michigan. He insists they exhibit perfect manners and speak French at meals, flying into a rage when they fail. He insists Allegra cater to his hypochondria and perform demeaning acts while dressed as one of the maids she employs at the Hemingway. He also develops an interest in extraterrestrial aliens and attempts to recruit Titus, who still sees Allegra and Anna when he comes to town, for his bizarre nocturnal excursions.
After Anna’s accidental destruction of a priceless Lalique vase and the ensuing argument, Allegra moves her family into the Hemingway, returning to Zigurd’s only for occasional appeasement. Under pressure to make a success of the hotel, Allegra becomes inattentive to Anna’s needs and punishes her haphazardly. Anna misbehaves at home, at school and at church. At a Sunday school outing, she is bitten by a Doberman, which only makes her withdraw further.
The arrival of Vadim Voronin, a Russian writer who takes up residence in the Hemingway, does not help matters. He not only ignites Anna’s overheated imagination with imaginary creatures of his own but also claims knowledge of the whereabouts of Anna’s deceased father. With comparable indifference to consequences, he seduces the Careen, whose marriage to James has crumbled and caused her to move into the Hemingway, too. Matiss is delighted have the company of a fellow writer, and the two do considerable drinking in Matiss’s apartment above the Deluxe Diner, where he works as a dishwasher. They are joined by the Negro cook, who has a manuscript under his hat. Matiss, at that time, has no inclination to put pen to paper. Nevertheless the footnotes to Anna’s story increase both in size and in scope, and he often becomes his primary subject matter.
Sam sometimes seems to be the sole source of reason. He mediates disputes between Anna and everyone in Anishinaabeg, tries to keep Anna’s expectations of father-finding in check and consoles Allegra when obligations overwhelm her. The only thing he does not do is address his own problems. The Sparrows also provide support, but that comes to an abrupt end when Seth, at his aspirational wife’s insistence, accepts a position at an auto assembly plant and moves his whole family to the Detroit area. In their absence, Anna increasingly relies on Vadim’s and Archie’s counsel, who make increasingly preposterous recommendations in an attempt to outdo one another.
Part II ends with Anna trying to reach Kalamazoo, where Vadim has said someone has information about her father, and Sam, in his role as Police Chief, ensuring her safe return to the Hemingway Hotel. Elvira shares unsettling information she has learned about her own father with Allegra and cautions Anna to leave well enough alone.
Part III: Departure
Part III begins with the funeral of Zigurd Zeiss, who has died of a heart attack after, some say, encountering extraterrestrial aliens from Ceres. While this removes one source of stress from the Avotini, it introduces another: Zigurd has willed Allegra the Hemingway Hotel but bequeathed all other assets to The Cosmic Conclave, a specious cult touting reincarnation in remote celestial systems.
Sam is reluctant to resort to aliens. As winter moves in, he shelters an adolescent dog who arrives with a storm and names him “Ernie Pyle” after noting his ability to not only nose out news but report it in a compelling manner. Ernie teams up with Archie to assist Sam. When evidence points to Wennie, Wendell turns the tables by implicating Anna. Terrified Anna hides in the Hemingway’s attic, where she is trapped by a blinding blizzard. She is joined by Archie, who teaches her poetry to while away the time. He also teaches her how to become invisible, which allows them both to come and go at will.
Sam mounts a search for Anna, assuming she has again run away to find her father. Allegra loses heart, wondering whether it might not be better if Anna were never found, or found and cared for by normal Americans. Carren, feeling she could have done more, claims she and James could be those Americans. When Allegra reminds her James has filed for divorce, she decides instead to become Anna’s godmother. Vadim, also showing remorse, concludes he can make things better by passing off Matiss as Anna’s father. When Allegra and Matiss protest, he corrects himself, saying he meant “godfather.”
Ernie locates Anna, but she gets caught on the attic stairs between the exuberant Ernie and the effusive Careen. Anna screams and becomes indistinct, then fades from view. Food gets eaten, clothes get soiled, homework gets done, but Anna is never seen again in Anishinaabeg. Ernie also solves the mystery of Zigurd’s demise by poking around bottles and jars left in the hexagonal house and showing how a cocktail of the contents Zigurd used to treat imaginary ailments could have induced cardiogenic shock, thus clearing all the suspects.
Matiss claims, in footnotes lasting pages, he was the sole person with whom Anna would communicate, referring in particular to a poem she had written for him during the ice storm that followed the fire that consumed the Hemingway Hotel. He also adds he was the one who relocated the Avotini to the Detroit area and located the Sparrows, who put them up and found Allegra work at Ford. Finally, he takes credit for fostering a flirtation between Anna and Nicholas Noon, who with his family left Anishinaabeg the day Anna and hers arrived, that resulted in their marriage. (He has apparently forgotten how, earlier, he had described Portia Porter putting Allegra in touch with Nicholas’s mother Nelly and the friendship that had ensued.)
Part III closes with no mention of Anna. Instead Matiss writes about the cruel injustice of being accused by Vadim of plagiarizing his poems as well as those written by prominent Latvians, managing to link this with other Russian aggression committed during the last war.
Clarinda Harriss, Careen’s daughter, provides a postscript for the novel’s 2014 edition, offering proof Vadim’s accusations are pure rubbish. As evidence, she presents one of Matiss’s lost poems. And the contrite words Anna finally wrote in her godfather’s defense. She also informs readers of Sam’s incomprehensible suicide.