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Pickle Me This

July 30, 2008

Tapestries of Place

I’ve been reading a lot of Sharon Butala lately, ever since I read her latest Girl in Saskatoon in April. I’ve read come to know her voice by heart now, present regardless of whether in fiction or non-fiction, her short fiction and her novels, and opening one of her books is like settling down with a new friend. I’ve just finished Lilac Moon: Dreaming of the Real West, an absolutely extraordinary book exploring Canada’s west, its history and its present. Such a compelling read, an essential addition to any Canadian library, so filled with learning, and I would it upon anyone looking to learn more about this part of Canada, or anyone who thinks they’ve learned enough and perhaps could do with some re-examination. And some celebrating too– for Lilac Moon is a celebration, even if a critical one.

“What makes a Westerner?” Butala asks throughout each of her chapters, considering the rodeo as an emblem, relationships to the land, with First Nations peoples, the situation of women. What it means, the pioneering spirit, to be raised in the shadow of this mythology. What this mythology might exaggerate or obfuscate. All this culminating in a beautiful chapter, “Visions of the Prairie West” about how Western Canada has been defined by its artists and writers– “We paint, write, sculpt, dance, film, act, compose and sing and play– however wistful, however tentative– our claims on this place.”

Strange to have read this soon after my rereading of Joan Didion’s Where I Was From. I didn’t plan it, and certainly could have forseen the patterns, though I didn’t. Both writers reexamining mythologies of Westness, the tropes of their childhoods, of pioneering spirits and what such stories belie– Butala explaining that when the Canadian West was settled, “it certainly wasn’t to provide homes… for millions of destitute… Europeans” but because “the federal government feared that the Americans, seeing all that tempting ’empty’ territory, would simply move in and take it over.” Didion clarifying that those intrepid men who pushed the American frontier west towards California were in fact pushing themselves towards what then was actually Mexico.

Both writers weaving their personal histories, their family histories, into the wider stories to develop these tapestries of place, the perfect containers to hold and convey such complicated stories. Of places that both writers manage to combine a certain ambivalence for with a lifelong love. Questioning ideals they’ve held since childhood, those instilled by their parents, and grandparents before that, examining their own feelings of nostalgia. Inserting a woman’s perspective (though Didion would shy away from this distinction, I know) into the narrative of “Westness”, which is so often synonymous with “maleness”. Significant also, I think, the way that both Butala and Didion have shifted between fiction and non-fiction throughout their careers, in these particular books bringing the very best of both of these, blending story and the world into something so close to truth.

(Speaking of Westness, we’re going to Alberta in October!! V.v. exciting.)

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