Sharon Butala is well known for her autobiographical writings about her life on a prairie ranch, and her growing enchantment with the semi-arid lands of Saskatchewan near the Cypress Hills where she has lived for more than 25 years.
In particular, her wise and thoughtful memoir, The Perfection of the Morning, became a surprise best-seller and was nominated for the Governor-General's Award. It was followed by two other non-fiction works¨Coyote's Morning Cry and Wild Stone Heart¨which further explored her wish to preserve prairie lands in their original state, and her spiritual discoveries that came from strolling on the land and opening herself to its outer beauty and its inner meaning.
These works deservedly established Butala as a true voice of the Prairies, alongside such masters as W.O. Mitchell, Guy Vanderhaege and Sandra Birdsell. But what seems to have gone somewhat unnoticed in all the attention devoted to her autobiographical writings, is that Butala is also an artist of the first rank when she uses her skills to craft short stories.
Butala's stories are classical in style and structure¨by which I mean they are loyal to the conventions of a traditional short story, including the Joycean imperative of ending on a note of illumination or "epiphany". Every story in her latest collection, Real Life, builds with subtle power toward an ending so carefully and exquisitely worded that it leaves the reader reeling with emotion and insight.
The best example of this quiet power is surely the penultimate story, "Light", in which the protagonist, significantly named "Lucia" (Italian for "light") must manage the day-to-day care of her sister Elaine, already afflicted by polio and mild retardation, and now further scourged by cancer. As Lucia carries on the long process of providing palliative care to her increasingly disabled sister, she finds strange consolation¨or perhaps cold kinship¨in reading the accounts of Holocaust survivors. Ultimately, Lucia must give herself wholly over to her helpless sister, until she "can no longer tell where her sister leaves off and she begins." The story is wonderfully sad and beautiful, one of the best in a collection that almost never stumbles.
Butala's previous collection, Fever (which has lately been re-released in paperback) contains stories that employ a similar plot device, where one character hovers near death from a serious illness, while another assists, and reflects. Butala frequently places her characters in such situations of extremity, because it is precisely in these situations that the truth cannot be evaded. Yet¨with the single exception of "Light"¨in Real Life this extremity is served up through howling winter storms rather than terminal diseases. Most of the ten stories in Real Life are set against the backdrop of a harsh winter or a sudden, bitter snowstorm.
"Gravity", for example, describes the well-meaning but failed attempts of a Saskatchewan ranch wife to rescue an abused young woman and her baby from her monstrous, possessive husband. As the snow begins to fall while they drive away in their desperate bid to escape, the inevitability of their failure also descends upon them like the inescapable law of gravity. The young woman's husband, Rory, catches up to them and retrieves his wife with the threat of force, leaving the ranch wife to contemplate the rural code of honour that allows her neighbours to ignore the cruelty so evident in the eyes of men like Rory.
In "Thief of Souls", a woman who is distraught over the death of her young husband leaves her home town on the prairies to find work as a teacher in northern B.C. Suddenly, the pastor of the local evangelical church in the town to which she moved announces that the end of the world will take place on a particular day at a particular time. The children are terrified¨even those who don't attend that pastor's church become afraid. But on the appointed day a furious winter storm descends, downing power lines and forcing the entire town to cluster together in the community hall. Meanwhile, the teacher begins receiving phone calls from her former home, as if her own world¨which she felt had ended¨was not done with her after all.
Butala's stories often have a quality of fatalism reminiscent of Greek tragedy: the truth will out, and all attempts to avoid a full moral reckoning are futile. This was an important theme in her most recent novel, The Garden of Eden, which picked up on the lives of characters that were first introduced in Butala's debut novel, Country of the Heart. This theme also recurs time and again in Real Life, for example, in the brilliant story that concludes this collection, "Winterkill".
In that story, a farm wife is faced with the well-known cash crunch of modern family farms, where both she and her husband must work at jobs just to keep the farm going, but which nevertheless leave them with insufficient funds. This situation differs entirely from the prosperous farm life described in Country of the Heart; in the space of a single decade, chronic drought and soil erosion reduce prairie farms to near extinction. Suddenly, proud farmers are forced to try every trick in the book just to hold onto their heavily mortgaged lands. Now¨in the middle of the coldest January on record¨Bonny, the farm wife, must grapple with the unflinching pride of her husband Ross, who is faced with another bank repossession. In a flash of insight Bonny sees what will likely be their future, with Ross stubbornly determined to hold on, even if it destroys his marriage and family. Meanwhile, on the radio, news comes that the police have been abandoning aboriginal men without coats in sub-zero temperatures on the outskirts of a nearby city. They were being left to die. Bonny thinks about "the wealthy and the powerful [who] cared only for their own wealth and power and spared no thought for the people whose lives they had destroyed," and ponders as well "the forces that run the world [who] would not care about the deaths of two more aboriginal men." But, in a final vision, she finds hope: she dreams of a tree representing the verdant spring which must surely come, if only she can hold on through the interminable prairie winter.
It is the title story, however, that provides the most trenchant treatment of Butala's ineluctable moral truths. In "Real Life", a successful visual artist must face the consequences of her decision, many years before, when¨on a night of a harsh winter storm that had trapped them in a house together¨she encouraged her husband to take her best friend to bed, so that she in turn could seduce her best friend's husband. She had intended simply to create an amusing diversion for a night, but her reckless actions shattered their lives and destroyed their marriages; many years later, she realizes in a flash of searing insight that what she had thought was mere fantasy "was real, had always been real, that long ago, the four of us, stranded in that snowy little city far from the capitals of the world, by doing what we did, met, or made, a fate that would keep us firmly tied to the earth until the gods took pity on us, and finally let us go."
Sharon Butala is a master at stating the devastating truth in her stories with a quiet power that makes each story as stark as a sudden winter storm on a bone-chilling prairie night. Real Life is not to be missed. ˛