Bestselling Calgary author Sharon Butala’s story of how she came to write her new collection of short stories, Season of Fury and Wonder, is wonderfully juicy. The first story, she relates in the preface, “arrived” fully formed in her consciousness. No stranger to what Freud called the uncannyor Jung the collective unconscious, Butala has previously written of her mystical connection with the landscape and history of southwest Saskatchewan, where she lived for 33 years with her rancher husband. But this experience of receiving story from somewhere beyond consciousness was entirely new to her.
The story features an emotionally reserved older woman who feels duty bound to visit her ailing sister and brother-in-law—a man on his deathbed she admits she never liked. Awkward and embarrassed by the encounter, the woman is broadsided by a profound, albeit ephemeral, experience of mystical love. Searching for a title for the story, Butala recalled Raymond Carver’s iconic story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” and somewhat audaciously decided on “What Else We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”
More stories arrived, each featuring flawed, complex older women. Butala was inspired to revisit the literature she read and taught in her youth, and to reread these texts “in a new light… to say ‘and’ and ‘but’ and ‘if’ ”—to think with and beyond these stories. As a result, each of the 10 stories acknowledges an “inspired by” tribute to a canonical text by a famous writer—Joyce, Hemingway, Chekhov, Flannery O’Connor and others.
You don’t need to know these texts to enjoy Butala’s craft, but if you are challenged to read or reread the older stories, intertextual resonances will undoubtedly deepen the pleasure, or the haunting. For example, Butala’s “Pansy” sent me back to Willa Cather’s “Paul’s Case.” For both protagonists, young Paul and old Pansy, their vanity and self-delusion culminate in shocking, violent epiphanies that come to them too late.
Butala dedicates the collection “to the old women who have shaped the world”—a somewhat grandiose tribute, given the protagonists are mostly conventional, middle class and white. But Butala’s old women are also fully, humanly complex. In the face of their looming deaths, they struggle to make sense of their lives, their moral failings and the “vast and ancient cruelties of the world.” “How life is illuminated for you, when you are old,” thinks one protagonist, a common theme throughout.
Butala’s distilled prose speaks of years of honing her craft and a keen, sometimes lacerating clarity of vision that refuses nostalgia and sentimentality. “I am dying, of course,” says one woman to another, “Let’s not be cute.”
—Jannie Edwards is a poet, teacher and editor in Edmonton.