Tuesday, April 15, 2008
THE GIRL IN SASKATOON by Sharon Butala
If you come across “The Girl in Saskatoon” by Sharon Butala and think, because the cover shows a pretty girl, that it’s “chick lit,” you’ll be badly mistaken. Read the subtitle: “A Meditation on Friendship, Memory, and Murder.” Murder is the reason that the pretty girl, Alexandra Wiwcharuk, who was born the same year as I was and the year before Sharon Butala, will never be more than a girl. She was killed in 1962 in Saskatoon where Sharon grew up, attending school in the same class, and where I served a congregation for two years, 1986-88.
When Sharon and Alex were learning to “jive dance” as high schoolers, Saskatoon was a small city, apparently safe, seemingly anchored by the University of Saskatchewan where Sharon felt she found her key to the world. Alex had returned to a smaller town, Yorkton, for her nurse’s training but took a job in the Saskatoon hospital. Alex was Ukrainian: spoke the language, belonged to a strong family where she was the cherished youngest, and had an exemplary participation in the Orthodox Church. Sharon’s path was a little different (Scots/Irish and French, therefore Roman Catholic). Alex was single when murdered but Sharon was newly married when she read about her tragic fate in the newspaper.
This all counts in the book because it is about a cohort in a certain time and specific place. It asks what is knowable about those women as a group in hopes that clues to the unresolved mystery of Alex’s death will appear. At the very least it offers an account of why the murder has stayed alive in the minds of so many people. The book teeters on the edge of a possible resolution: fighting for her life meant Alex tore out hair from her assailant and that, with semen samples even at this late date, DNA might finally solve the case, possibly very soon.
But the brilliant insight that makes this book so memorable is that “solving the case” is not what it’s about. Rather the inquiry is into larger forces, some of which probably interfered with the resolution of the case. It is the very incompleteness, the unknowability of some things, that makes the “ghost” hints of Sharon’s own experience nag at the mind.
Sharon declares that she loves Saskatoon where her sisters live and claims it as her hometown though for many years she’s lived near Eastend, Saskatchwan, on a ranch with her husband Peter. It was in Eastend, on the hunt for Wallace Stegner’s boyhood home, that I met Sharon in 1987 or so. Being in the same age cohort and both of us writing was a tie between us -- though Sharon was about to become a national best seller and I was still plinking away without even a computer. I remember her delicately asking me about some “religious” issues that resurface in this book, questions about the supernatural. Peter had given her much-treasured safety and stability, which allowed memories to surface. Sitting in someone’s rural kitchen and seeing the can of evaporated milk on their oilcloth-covered table suddenly swamped her with images of her earliest childhood before the family moved to Saskatoon. This book has been “cooking” for a long time.
The Saskatoon I saw was not Sharon’s. I came from a background that included law enforcement and emergency reponse in Portland, OR, and from many years on a reservation married to a judge. Evil was familiar -- as Sharon remarks, “banal” in the famous Hannah Arendt formulation. I saw a lot of darkness in this city, particularly since I was on the board of the Friendship Centre, which tried to help “aboriginals” at a time when meth had just hit the rez. Sharon asks how young Indian men, not dressed for the intense cold of a Saskatoon winter, were mysteriously found out of town where they “died of exposure.” Racist cops abandoned them there. One survived to tell the tale. I was keeping a close eye on the cops in this story.
But the reason I “ran” -- and I really rather bolted from Saskatoon -- was another element: hierarchical secrecy and suppression as a modus operandi. (If my congregation had been willing to fight it, the story might have been different.) For instance, the province takes charge of all cancer cases and treats them in one hospital which is a bit of a black box: no raw statistics are available. The suspicion is that ag chem contamination and radioactivity (many workers in the uranium mines in the north live in Saskatoon) are triggering cancer, killing more than one pretty nurse, but the economic rewards of then current practices were too high to tolerate any change. Treatment is free but, again, there are gates. When I began to have ocular migraines, the optometrist who was the first gate ridiculed me. (When I got back to Montana, I was treated for holes in my retina.) There were other troubling but denied factors that must be “confidential.”
In a tough, opportunistic culture, it is dangerous to turn in drug-peddlers (as Alex was rumored to have done), to be pretty enough to stand out (three times a beauty queen plus the object of Johnny Cash’s stage show of affection), to flirt with charismatic men. In a place that denies evil, evil has that advantage of deniability. Even being naturally paranoid, like me, is no protection.
Why do Sharon and Alex, quite similar in looks and parallel in life experience, have such different fates? How should we care for each other? Once the damage is done, what is our responsibility for others like us? What corrects and heals a society that treats women like us so harshly, with so little support? Is it because men are in charge? Is it because they’re white? Or was this murder the first, the penetrating edge of evil forces creeping into the city along with an influx of aboriginals, Africans, Arabs and “others” from wicked places? Was Alex and girls like her who grew up at the edge of the wilderness in bush homesteads, idyllic in their relationship with nature, then made vulnerable by wanting to sit on the edge of a weir on a soft May evening? These are provocative and dangerous questions, taboo among many folks. As we near seventy years old, Sharon (and I, too) look back at that 23 year old girl and wonder.