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April 13, 2008

The Girl in Saskatoon by Sharon Butala

A year ago, a young British woman teaching English in Japan was murdered– to say brutally so just seems redundant. The story was big in the British press, resonating with me in particular as she’d worked for the same company I’d worked for when I lived there. The articles noting places I knew, cultural references that had once been my every day, the woman’s whole life familiar, right up until its ending which was so foreign as to be otherworldly, and this was my fascination.

It was distant enough to stay a story, however. It might as well have been fiction, until a couple of months later when I learned that as big as the world is, a good friend of mine here in Toronto had actually known the deceased girl. In fact she had been there when the girl went missing, a strange coincidence, but of course, not my story to tell. It was jarring though– the otherworldly transgressing into my own universe. Yet, with that universe remaining the same as it ever was. The multitudinous threads connecting me to a story that had nothing to do with me, and what kind of a narrative is that?

I have marked up most of my copy of Sharon Butala’s memoir The Girl in Saskatoon. I’ve underlined passages, written notes in the margins, drawn diagrams on the endpapers to get a better grasp of Butala’s arguments. And, as you can see, I’ve started my review on a tangent, but it ties up, I promise. All of this, I think, an appropriate response to Butala’s book, which is a veritable literary hybrid. Thriller, novel, historical record, reminiscence, elegy, etc., all contained within one mesmerizingly readable package. Butala making her process transparent– her very act of containment the result of years of work. It only being natural that the pieces might spring back out again once the package is given to the reader. So do please pardon my tangle.

In 1962 in Saskatoon, the body of Alexandra Wiwcharuk, a twenty-three year old nurse and beauty queen, was discovered on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. She’d been missing for two weeks before her body was discovered, and it was determined she’d been raped and murdered; her killer was never found. Writer Sharon Butala, who’d been a classmate of Alex’s though not exactly a friend, has lived with this story quite central to her consciousness since then, as have many residents of Saskatoon. Butala approaches the story with questions in mind: what is its attraction and hold, what happens to the memory of it over time, how could something like this even happen? Moreover, “To a girl just like me, to someone I knew?”

The book begins with Butala revisiting the murder scene, observing no sign of what had happened. This disturbing in itself, but Butala extends this: if we don’t remember, then such a thing could happen to anybody, and become commonplace and unremarkable. The causality of this seeming backward to me as I read it– surely she means our not remembering makes it commonplace, and being commonplace, of course, it could happen to anyone? But I drew my diagrams, and I thought about it. Realizing that it’s not even the possibility of such an evil act in practical terms that so horrifies Butala, but the commonplaceness. If such a thing is commonplace, regardless of its occurrence, this means that evil is present where we are, altogether pervasive. And it’s coming to terms with this that is central to her narrative, as she struggles to “solve” the murder, to pin down the trouble to something specific. She can’t, such is the world, and this is one of the paramount lessons of her life.

We try to pin down cases like this not just out of curiosity, but to protect ourselves and our sense of security. Butala writes of reactions to Alex’s murder– if there is no killer upon which to place the blame, then surely Alex herself must be culpable. If the victim brought it upon herself, then we who play by the rules are not at risk. “The rules” being the strict and often contrary expectations placed upon women in the 1950s and early ’60s– that they must be sexual, but only so far, their limited choices for the future against the rest of the whole wide world.

There is a line we draw in our own consciousnesses, between what is possible and that which isn’t. Most often this barrier is quite literal– a movie screen– and our sense of order is disrupted when this line is violated. We try to maintain it all the same– “she was asking for it” being such a divide between us and her. Between us and the evil that Butala is trying to understand– forty years later she is horrified at the coldness with which she’d received the news of her classmate’s death, her lack of reaction: “…it would be quite a few years before I would teach myself that I had to tear that barrier down and allow myself to feel, no matter how painful, how horrible or sad– how very difficult it is to know the world as it is.”

And difficult to know in very practical terms also– initially Butala has a vision of gathering the pieces of this story, of putting them together as a writer does, and emerging with something complete, the mystery solved. She quickly realizes the process is much more convoluted: the pieces she gathers are mismatched, broken, contradictory, elusive. At one point she discovers that Alex had kept a diary, that that diary had bizarrely been written in code, that her sister had later burned it– these are the kinds of details she was working with. The official authorities putting up blocks in her investigation, withholding information. Eventually she realizes that “everybody had turf to protect, everybody had kept secrets; they had kept secrets from each other, and from me, and most of us, I was beginning to think, from themselves.”

The mystery is never solved, and even as readers we don’t get the whole picture. Throughout, Butala breezes past details of strange phone calls in the night, her phone being tapped, and “other scary incidents I haven’t put into this book”. This is quite a gap in the narrative, but not altogether out of place, being a narrative full of gaps and probably analogous to Butala’s own experience. She says herself at the end, that her book didn’t turn out to be about what she’d intended at the start: “I saw at last that there is truly no straight line through this story, a neat beginning, a comprehensible middle,a tidy satisfying end…. The story was, instead, about story”

And what story is about, instead of answers, is connections. However ultimately meaningless or incidental, for those people who create stories, connections are the hinges. Between Butala and Alexanda– their similar rural origins, they were in the drama club, that Butala had a summer job at the hospital where Alex would begin her nursing career. No, the two hadn’t been friends, hardly knew one another– just as I never known the murdered English teacher– but this very fact can make the connections all the more curious, significant.

Butala makes connections even more far-reaching– “that only months after [Alex’s] murder, Watson,Walter and Crick were awarded the Nobel Prize for their long work culminating in the determination of the molecular structure of DNA”, which might come to be important to the case. That the day after Alex’s disappearance, Marilyn Monroe would sing her infamous “Happy Birthday” to the US President. Butala writes, “By August, Marilyn, too, would be dead, the world offering certain undeniable benefits to pretty women, being also very hard on them.”

These connection
s are solid. The only thing incidental, I think, being that their connectivity is not their very point. And these threads are worked so thoroughly through the very fabric of our lives, so what isn’t significant then?

The story that Butala comes to write is that of two girls who, “although mere acquaintances and never close friends, had been linked by circumstance and history, and by memory.” An elegy for a disappearing world– I began to count the buildings Butala notes have been torn down, including the high school, movie theatre, the legion hall, the places where both she and Alex had lived. She is observing Saskatoon and having much the same reaction she had to the murder scene: how could anything have ever happened if there is no way to tell? This book being her testament.

Butala writes Alex as her parallel self, beautiful while she was plain, dead while she got to live. In their similar origins examining the possibilities of her own narrative, the story she has come to take for granted– but for a few details, the murdered girl could have been her. Butala acknowledges the strength she gains in creating this story, engaging with the world and feeling a part of it in a way she never supposed she could. But she invests Alex with just as much strength– the exchange is fair. Invests her with a voice, her story told however incomplete, and most of all with the fact of memory.

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