As Sharon Butala prepared to leave her southwest Saskatchewan ranch, after her adored husband's death, she had a nightmare. In the dream, recounted in her new memoir, Where I Live Now, a black dog comes for her across the fields, "murderous, implacable," and suddenly transforms into three terrible owls, which she placates with a tinfoil-wrapped package of frozen meat. It's a great image, and a good example of the book's meshing of the uncanny and the mundane, depicting that space where loss reshapes everything.
For all that, Where I Live Now isn't a map of grief's progress in the mode of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking, to which it refers several times. Butala's quiet and unusual book is an excavation of the Prairies, rural life and, above all, herself. She declares: "With this memoir, I hereby claim forever my portion of that country whose many layers … still resonate in my imagination." She also claims an archeological knowledge of her own soul, now that she is in her mid-70s, and the right to take us through it. We're lucky to go along.
As in her many earlier books, Butala writes with calm authority. A careful stylist, she allows herself bursts of sensuous nature depiction, but keeps her telling plain over all. It's a contrast to the memoir's meandering structure. Yet, while full of spiritual dreaming beyond the dog, the memoir is never woo-woo. As with the author's many walks over her fields, this is a lovely, dark and deep journey, although not as straightforward a trip as the title might suggest. Instead of taking readers "through," it circles and crisscrosses Butala's territory, to great effect.
What keeps us with her? Butala is an acutely honest writer, and here her voice is especially strong. Shifting occasionally from "I" to "she" and "you," she creates a self-portrait from various sides, built on difficult interrogations as the best memoirs are. Butala works up the courage to ask her dying mother, "What was the best time?" (Mom replies, wonderfully, "Now!") Building to her own "great question," the author ends up asking: "What is a human life worth? And in particular, What is a woman's life worth … in the rural, agricultural world [?]"
The book also questions the nature of home. Butala has to give up the ranch where she learned to write and to love the land, and that is tightly associated with her husband of 31 years, Peter. She writes movingly on what might be defined as soul-homelessness: "Something has ended, and there is nothing – nothing at all – to fill that black cavern that is your interior." This isn't quite the underworld, but Butala is a knowing guide in the land of the bereaved, the half-dead, a place she has to find a way out of. The title avoids the word "home" to draw us to the writer's growing sense that home is the self, simply "where I live now."
Peter is another question. We learn about him in flashes – his practical brilliance, his gruff kindness to his cattle, his late-life search for his Slovakian family. By making him an absence, the book lets us feel Butala's loss, leaving us wishing for more of him. It also underlines a subtler point: the acceptance of unknowability as a key to life. Butala has to recognize, for instance, that "it is not for [her] to know" exactly what happened on her land when it belonged to ancient First Nations people. This humbling moment works better than some of the book's history-lesson depictions of white settlement, a kind of truth and reconciliation with the land's original inhabitants, and with the dead generally.
Yet Butala says, in an exchange with a young First Nations man, "I just like … to know things." Readers do too, and being permitted so intimately into a life can make you feel like that nightmare dog, pursuing the quarry to tear it inside out. But like the great diarist Samuel Pepys, this author does that herself. A surgical examiner of her experience, mind and flaws, she generously lets us see all. Pepys also recorded all kinds of dreams, and once enjoyed a trip to his youthful haunts, remembering "my old walks … [where] I had the first sentiments of love and pleasure."
After this, he discovered he was lost in a wood. But like Butala, he too found his way out.
Alix Hawley is the author of All True Not a Lie in It, which won the Amazon.ca First Novel Award.