Sharon Butala’s second memoir, Where I Live Now, continues the story of her first—1994’s bestselling The Perfection of the Morning—offering readers a poignant look into her life over the past few decades. The new memoir opens with the widowed Butala on a pilgrimage from her home in Calgary to her late husband’s gravesite in Saskatchewan, then jumps back to an earlier time when the author, a young single mother, moved from Saskatoon to an isolated acreage in Eastend to marry a stoic rancher named Peter. “…Here on the open, treeless plains of southwest Saskatchewan,” she writes, “I lived what turned out to be not the rest of my life, but only the middle, the fulcrum, around which everything else circles.”
Over her more than 30-year writing career, Butala has received the Order of Canada and won numerous awards. But accolades only represent an aspect of her story; she draws strength from her surroundings, not her accomplishments, and insights into her writing life are woven discreetly into her descriptions of landscape. Readers familiar with her work will here recognize themes she has become known for: women’s property rights, First Nations history and land ownership, and the meditative therapy of immersing oneself in nature.
In one particularly compelling scene, Butala describes her reaction to her husband’s death just a few hours before. Expecting family members, she spends hours scrubbing the floor of her kitchen, all the while repeating: “My husband is dead; my husband is dead.” Although the subtitle of the book insinuates a painful rehashing of Peter’s death, his passing is treated as a trigger not so much for emotion, but for relocation. Only toward the end of the book do we settle at his deathbed for one last moment between husband and wife—another powerful scene. But ever practical, Butala keeps us looking forward: a small mercy to the reader and a brave final act as wife.
While Butala’s storytelling is straightforward and unsentimental when covering the changing circumstances of her life, the book’s trajectory can be difficult to follow. Some readers may find the way she jumps back and forth between time periods unsettling. That said, as someone who has written two memoirs, Butala has a lot to say and is worth listening to.
In her writing she often attempts to reconcile her own sense of identity, uncomfortable being labelled as either rural or urban. This struggle continues; as Butala discloses, there may be more to come. “And yet, I wait for an ending,” she writes. “I wait for a degree of comprehension about those years that will enable me to place them in the story of my life—some story that I haven’t yet written, because I can’t yet draw conclusions.”
—Calgary’s Anne Logan reviews books at ivereadthis.com.