Lookout: Love, Solitude, and Searching for Wildfire in the Boreal Forest

By Sharon Butala

by Trina Moyles Random House Canada 2021/$32.00/328 pp.

As a memoirist and occasional teacher of the form, I read Trina Moyles’ Lookout with more than a general reader’s interest, knowing that these days even the most talented writers have a hard time getting their manuscripts accepted by Canada’s big publishers. Moyles’ book provides an example of how it’s done: tell an interesting story with a strong narrative drive; don’t meander or go off on tangents; don’t get lost in overly-long descriptions; don’t use too-lofty diction, or rhetorical devices, or expound on puzzlingly abstract notions. Above all, use a writerly voice that attracts and holds readers. Moyles doesn’t miss one of these and the result is an entertaining, fast-moving memoir about her youth as a risk-taker and adventurer in Central America and Uganda, fetching up eventually in the Canadian boreal forest.

Moyles is one of those seekers who, depending on how you look at it, appears as either lost and bewildered, or adventurous and brave, or maybe even a little of both, as she takes on challenges thousands of miles from home. In the end, you are taken aback—at least, I was—to find that Moyles has chosen to live alone up to five months of the year in the boreal forest as her “near-perfect” place. Here she finds satisfaction in living mostly without the physical presence of other humans, (there are voices aplenty, and occasional visits from other forest fire crews), and in the midst of the absorbing splendour of our boreal forest and its inhabitants. Fighting off grizzlies, keeping a wary eye out for wolves and other predators, watching plants grow, she slowly adapts to this solitary life. How this happens is the strongest aspect of this book—that, and her brief descriptions of the wonders of the natural world that surrounds her.

She writes about her struggles to learn her job, her beginner’s mistakes, her determination to be a competent wildfire lookout, and downplays the loneliness and justifiable fear she must have experienced that first summer. Nor does she expend much effort on examining the failed relationships she tells us about, beyond her shame at—what?—not knowing what she wants, I think. The memoir form allows for deep personal ruminations, for many readers this is its most satisfying feature, but Moyles’ personal struggle with her own desires and weaknesses and her shortcomings that sometimes damage others is presented only on the surface, and without the mature consideration, even deep understanding found in the very best memoirs and that cause us to examine our own lives in the light of that wisdom.

Most readers probably won’t miss that, though, enjoying her closely-observed record of life as a wildfire lookout, will be rooting for her to find her way, and when she does, will set the book down to ponder on her nonconformist choices.

Sharon Butala is the author of 20 books of fiction and non-fiction.

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