Butala, Sharon (Annette) 1940-
BUTALA, Sharon (Annette) 1940-
PERSONAL: Born August 24, 1940 in Nipawin, Saskatchewan, Canada; daughter of Achille Antoine (a mechanic) and Margaret Amy Alexis (a homemaker; maiden name, Graham) Le Blanc; married (divorced); married Peter Noble Butala (a rancher), 1976; children: (first marriage) Sean Anthony Hoy. Ethnicity: "Euro-Canadian/French/Irish-ScotsFrench." Education: University of Saskatchewan, B.Ed. (English), 1962, B.A. (art), 1963, post-graduate diploma (special education), 1973.
ADDRESSES: Home—Box 428, Eastend, Saskatchewan S0N 0T0, Canada. Agent—Westwood Creative Artists, 94 Harbord St., Toronto, Ontario M5S 1G6, Canada. E-mail—[email protected]
MEMBER: Saskatchewan Writers' Guild, Writers' Union of Canada, PEN.
AWARDS, HONORS: Long Fiction Award, Saskatchewan Writers' Guild, 1983, for "Shortgrass Country"; Best Novel Award nomination, Books in Canada, 1984, for Country of the Heart; Major Drama Award, Saskatchewan Writers' Guild, 1985, for Natural Disasters; Governor General's Award nomination, 1986, for Queen of Headaches; Annual Contributors Award, Canadian Fiction Magazine, 1988, for "The Prize"; 'B' Award, Canada Council, 1988; Senior Arts Grant, Saskatchewan Arts Board, 1989; Major Drama Award, Saskatchewan Writers Guild, 1989, for "The Elements of Fire"; Silver Award for Fiction, National Magazine Awards, 1991, for "Justice"; Runner-up, Commonwealth Writers Award, 1991, for Fever; National Magazine Awards, honorable mention, 1991; Author's Award for Paperback Fiction, Foundation for the Advancement of Canadian Letters, 1992; Canada 125 Commemorative Medal, 1992; Gold Saskatchewan Award, Western Magazine Awards, 1992, 1993 and 1994; Governor General's Award nomination, 1994, for The Perfection of Morning; Nonfiction Prize and "Spirit of Saskatchewan" Prize, Saskatchewan Book Awards, 1994; Marian Engel Award, Writers' Development Trust, 1998; Major Canada Council Award, 1998; University of Regina, Honorary Doctorate of Laws, 2000; The Queen's Golden Jubilee Medal, 2002; Order of Canada, officer, 2002. Also the recipient of four conservation awards with husband Peter Noble Butala.
Country of the Heart, Fifth House Publishers (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1984, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1999.
The Gates of the Sun, Fifth House Publishers (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1986, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Luna, Fifth House Publishing (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1988, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994.
Upstream, Fifth House Publishers (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1991, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1996.
The Fourth Archangel, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1992.
The Garden of Eden, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1998.
SHORT STORY COLLECTIONS
Queen of the Headaches, Coteau Books (Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1985.
Fever, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1990.
Real Life: Short Stories, HarperFlamingo Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
Harvest, with photography by Todd Korol, Fifth House Publishers (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada), 1992.
The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1994, published as Perfection of the Morning: A Woman's Awakening in Nature, Hungry Mind Press (Saint Paul, MN), 1997.
Coyote's Morning Cry: Meditations and Dreams from a Life in Nature, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 1995.
Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields, Harper-Flamingo Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2000.
Old Man on His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape, photography by Courtney Milne, HarperCollins Canada (Toronto, Ontario, Canada), 2002.
(Author of introduction) Elizabeth McLachlan, Gone but Not Forgotten: Takes of the Disappearing Grain Elevators, NeWest Press (Alberta, Canada), 2004.
Contributor to numerous Canadian literary magazines and periodicals. Also author of five plays.
SIDELIGHTS: Sharon Butala is one of Canada's most respected authors. "Butala is not Alice Munro or Mavis Gallant, but as a short-story writer, she's in their league," wrote Pat Donnelly in the Montreal Gazette. Butala commenced her writing career relatively late in life and through a rather roundabout way. In 1976, when she was thirty-six, she fell in love with Peter Noble Butala and wished to marry him, but geography separated them. She lived in Saskatoon with the teenage son of her first marriage and was pursuing a master's degree in special education and a career as an academic. Her mother, her sisters, and their families, and a close circle of female friends also lived in Saskatoon. Peter, on the other hand, owned a ranch in the most arid region of Canada, the Palliser Triangle in southwestern Saskatchewan. Despite her misgivings, the rhythm of life on the ranch moved her. As Butala told Linda Leith in Books in Canada, during a May cattle drive at Peter's ranch, Butala "spent the entire day perched on the coral watching the men work—in the middle, she joked afterwards, of a Roy Rogers movie. But though she made light of it, she was actually 'stirred so deeply that everything in my old life—friends, job, family, politics—paled beside it.'" Surprising her friends and family, she moved to be with Peter while her son stayed in Saskatoon to finish high school.
Butala was under no delusions that she was fleeing to Eden, but nothing in her earlier life had prepared her for the hardscrabble existence on the prairie. While Butala's husband was away minding his cattle herd, reported George Woodcock, writing in Quill & Quire, Butala found herself alone, "thrown back starkly on herself, or rather, on herself and Nature, seen at its barest and its purest in the dry ice-scraped plateau where some of the true prairies survived. She was driven inward to examine the sources of herself, but also outward into the world of dreams and visions, which in this isolation took on a special importance, partly because they were indeed striking and clearly significant of changes of both outer and inner life."
In an article for Canadian Geographic, Butala related how the landscape was changing her: "The longer I stayed [on the prairie], the more I saw of [the meadows, buttes, and 'box' canyons], and the more fascinated I grew. Everywhere we went, the enormity and silence of this diffusely populated landscape opened my psyche to mysteries I'd not examined in the hurly-burly of city life. I could feel my soul expanding to admit—to encompass—this splendour." It was these circumstances that provoked Butala to write—first journals, then short stories and novels, all set in the prairie lands of Saskatchewan.
Butala considers herself primarily a writer of fiction, but her most well-received book, The Perfection of the Morning: An Apprenticeship in Nature, published in 1994, is a memoir of her life-changing move to Saskatchewan, of her development as a writer, and of her burgeoning appreciation of nature. Leith praised the results in Books in Canada, commenting that Butala is at ease in this environment. Leith wrote that Butala's "insights are hard-won, her voice honest and true. She is a wonderful guide." John Bemrose, reviewing The Perfection of the Morning for Maclean's, called it "one of the most perceptive and moving meditations ever written by a Canadian on that mysterious and often misunderstood presence that we call nature."
Butala released Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields, a companion to The Perfection of the Morning, in 2000. The "field" Butala refers to in the title of the book is a one hundred-acre piece of land owned by Butala and her husband. About fourteen years ago, the couple stopped allowing cattle to roam the field and let the field return to its ecological state. "As I've walked the field, I've bit by bit discovered—and I think it was the field that taught me—that it's actually a sacred site in terms of aboriginal people. The book is also very much about the two world views of the Euro Canadians and the traditional First Nations people, and how the land taught me of them," Butala explained in an interview published on the Shared Vision Web site. In a review of the book for Canadian Literature, Cheryl Lousley described Wild Stone Heart as "a rambling personal narrative which intersperses dreams and anecdotes, walks and visions, local history and Jungian psychology, written in a simple, honest voice." Writing in The Scotsman, Katrina Dixon considered the book, "sensitive, evocative, and thoughtful reading."
Butala is also the author of several novels. Her first, Country of the Heart, tells the story of Lannie, an unsettled young woman who journeys back to the Saskatchewan farm of her adoptive parents. Alberto Manguel, a reviewer for Books in Canada, praised her writing as "straightforward, unadorned, [and] tightfisted with metaphors." However, Sherie Posesorski reviewed the novel differently in a Quill & Quire review, calling the book "a black-and-white photo" of the three protagonists in "an out-of-focus background, dominated by Butala's thumbprint on the camera lens." Despite such criticism, Country of the Heart was generally well received and was nominated for the 1984 Books in Canada first novel award.
The Gates of the Sun, a more ambitious novel published in 1986, follows the life of Andrew Samson on the Saskatchewan prairie. The novel has four sections, each section detailing a different stage in Andrew's development. In the first part Andrew is an eight-year-old émigré yearning to ride horses and live a free life on the land. In part two he is a grown man who makes a living by cattle rustling. His mother's death and his incarceration for rustling cause him to reassess his life, and he becomes a respected rancher and raises a family in the third part of the novel. Part four shows him as an old man wondering what has happened to the plains now being converted to farmlands and oil fields. Barbara Novak gave a mixed report of The Gates of the Sun in Books in Canada: "Butala is more successful at physical descriptions than she is at exploring the emotional core of her characters, where she tends to be somewhat heavy-handed. . . . At its best, however, The Gates of the Sun expresses a prairie existentialism that is profoundly moving."
Luna, Butala's 1988 novel, tells about the trials and tribulations of two sisters and their aging aunt living on the prairie. The women engage in various power struggles with the men in the novel—the worst involves the rape of one of the women's sixteen-year-old daughter—and the women offer each other emotional and spiritual solace. Cary Fagan, reviewing the work for Books in Canada, felt that the novel is overpowered by feminist dialectics, but praised Butala's gift for physical description: "Butala lets the reader see the grasshopper swarms, feel the cold of a cattle drive at thirty below, sympathize with the unending work and financial worry."
Upstream, written in the early 1980s, but not published until 1996, features Chloe, a Saskatchewan woman coping with her mixed French/English heritage. Her husband, whom she has supported through graduate school, is leaving her for another woman. She drives across country to Quebec to visit her parents and to sort out her life. A Kirkus Reviews critic dismissed the book as "meandering . . . and only mildly engaging" and Rita Donovan complained about the book's "unevenness" in a Books in Canada review: "It is a good story. But one finds oneself wishing that it could have been a slightly better novel."
Philip Bull, writing for Quill & Quire, called Butala's fourth novel, The Fourth Archangel, "a touching and vivid tale of a vanishing world." The residents of Ordeal, a small prairie town in Saskatchewan, face the impending millennium with trepidation. Many of them are having mystical experiences and visions. A local prostitute suffers from stigmata, phantom trains rush by on abandoned train lines, ghosts of Western pioneers materialize in the streets, a minister dreams of Ordeal becoming a perfect town floating in the sky—the wonders tumble forth. It is the summer of the year 2000, and the weather is sweltering. The farmers despair because their crops are not thriving, but they join forces to protect the town and their rustic ways. "All in all, it's a strange mixture of a book," wrote Eric McCormack in a review for Books in Canada, claiming the book provided "considerable reading pleasure."
Butala's sixth novel, The Garden of Eden, was published in 1998. Similar to her nonfiction The Perfection of the Morning in theme, the novel tells of Iris, a middle-aged woman married to a Saskatchewan farmer. Following her husband's death, Iris finds herself trying to deal with emotional and spiritual issues ranging from guilt at having placed her mother in a retirement home to her loveless marriage. Iris is also driven in the novel to reestablish contact with Lannie, the orphaned niece she raised who has fled to refugee work in Ethiopia with her own emotional issues. "One of the book's finest achievements is the way it weaves details from the natural world into the lives of its protagonists, so that the flight of a bird, the smell of soil, become an integral part of their thinking and feeling," wrote John Bemrose in a review for Maclean's. He added, "For Butala, nature is obviously the fundamental ground of human life."
Butala has also published three collections of short stories. Her first, Queen of the Headaches, was published to mixed reviews. "Some of the stories, which are mostly about the people of the Saskatchewan farmlands, do not succeed, but others are almost perfect examples of their genre," wrote Hilda Kirkwood in a review of the collection for Canadian Forum. Kirkwood particularly noted "Arlene," the story of a pregnant hippie woman welcomed and then rejected by a commune. John Greenwood of Books in Canada complained that Butala could be "heavy-handed" at times, but noted that "the best stories are those that get away from . . . didactic plots." One of these stories, according to Greenwood, is "The Mission" which he called "a curious, gentle piece." Queen of the Headaches was nominated for the Governor General's Literary Award in 1986.
Butala's second book of short stories, Fever, was warmly received by critics. Joan McGrath, in a review for Canadian Materials, noted that "all of [the stories] have enormous power and resonance." Rachel Rafelman, reviewing the collection for Books in Canada, wrote that the stories' "reward is at best a brief and painful awareness that life is random and experience idiosyncratic." Ann Jansen, writing for Quill & Quire, saw some interesting differences between Butala's first and second story collections. In both collections, Jansen found, the stories are about "ordinary people," but in Fever the characters find themselves "caught in out-of-the-ordinary situations. . . . [In] ambiguous landscapes . . . though reality generally clicks firmly in again after the temporary distortions."
Real Life, released in the spring of 2002, is Butala's third short-story collection. As its title suggests, the book contains short stories about characters faced with real-life dilemmas such as divorce, physical disability, poverty, and loss. Each of the characters must make a difficult decision and choose a path that will lead to personal discovery. In a review of the book for Quill & Quire, Tracey Thomas concluded, "In the end, Real Life, just like real life, is beautiful and disquieting, all at once." "The stories in Real Life linger in the mind long after the book is finished," praised Verne Clemence in Star Phoenix.
Old Man on His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape refers to 13,000 acres of rolling prairie grassland that Butala and her husband donated to the Nature Conservatory of Canada. The grass on the prairie is pristine native prairie grassland and the Butalas wanted to ensure its protection. "Not since Willa Cather and Laura Ingalls Wilder have the prairies had so devoted a chronicler as Sharon Butala," remarked Louis Bayard in a review of the book for the Nature Conservancy Web site. Bayard concluded that the book is "an ideal word-and-picture showcase" of the prairie.
Butala told CA: "I began life as a painter (after an abortive attempt as a novelist when I was nine) and, having discovered I could no longer find the heart to paint, made the switch to writing when I was thirty-eight and in a new marriage and a new life on a ranch in southwest Saskatchewan. I began writing then because creative activity is the strongest drive in me and wouldn't be denied, and because I had moved into a new environment which excited and amazed me, sometimes even filled me with awe. It was not only the wonderful new landscape, but also the rural agricultural people of the southwest whose motivations and desires, customs and rites, I found fascinating. I wanted to understand them and in time, I came to want to understand myself. I found writing about this new environment and sub-culture, and about myself in both, was the way to achieve these goals.
"Nothing has influenced me as much as the landscape here and my experiences in nature. However, in my attempt to understand myself and life here, I fixed on the need to describe the inner lives of women, especially of women living close to the land—to nature—and in a traditionally patriarchal world. Out of this study I hope to extrapolate to the heart and souls of other Canadian women. In this work I have learned from many, but especially from Alice Munro. I am very isolated from the world of the literary arts (having lived out here for twenty-six years now) and am little influenced by the fashions and trends of that world. Mostly I turn inward and hope to find what I need there. Probably the most significant event of my life was the twenty or so years I spent here on the land, usually alone, and alienated from the surrounding culture. This period of profound loneliness was what turned me inward and gave me such wisdom as I can claim."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
McFague, Sallie, Super, Natural Christians: How We Should Love Nature, Fortress Press (Minneapolis, MN), 1997.
Moss, John, The Paradox of Meaning: Cultural Poetics and Critical Fictions, Turnstone Press (Manitoba, Canada), 1999.
Beaver, February, 1995, p. 53.
Books in Canada, October, 1984, pp. 31-32; April, 1986, p. 24; August-September, 1986, pp. 13-14; October, 1988, pp. 8-9; March, 1991, p. 50; October, 1991, p. 38; April, 1994, pp. 26-27; December, 1994, p. 16; October, 1995, p. 40.
Books Magazine, autumn, 2001, review of Wild Stone Heart: An Apprentice in the Fields, p. 21.
Canadian Book Review Annual, 1994, p. 51; 1996, p. 237; 2000, review of Wild Stone Heart, p. 36.
Canadian Forum, January, 1987, p. 39; February-March, 1989, pp. 33-34; July-August, 1992, p. 28.
Canadian Geographic, November-December, 1992, p. 118; July-August, 1995, p. 44; September-October, 2002, Gordon Laird, review of "The Old Man's Daunting Spirit."
Canadian Literature, spring, 1993, p. 157; winter, 1995, p. 201.
Canadian Materials, March, 1991, p. 115.
Edmonton Journal, June 9, 2002, Margaret Gunning, review of Real Life.
Globe and Mail, August 19, 2000, Wayne Grady, review of Wild Stone Heart; June 8, 2002, Maggie Siggins, review of Real Life.
Kirkus Reviews, January 15, 1997, pp. 76-77.
Maclean's, May 9, 1994, p. 48; July 1, 1994, pp. 38-40; October 26, 1998.
Montreal Gazette, September 19, 1998; September, 2002, Pat Donnelly, review of Real Life.
Publishers Weekly, April 14, 1997, p. 72.
Quill & Quire, July, 1984, p. 73; February, 1986, p. 39; September, 1986, pp. 81-82; December, 1990, pp. 21, 23; April, 1992, p. 23; February, 1994, p. 23; September, 1994, p. 63; September, 1995, pp. 61-62; May, 2002, Tracey Thomas, review of Real Life.
Scotsman, July 28, 2001, Katrina Dixon, review of Wild Stone Heart, p. 12.
Star Phoenix, May 11, 2002, Verne Clemence, review of Real Life.
Toronto Star, August 27, 1998.
Canadian Literature Web site, http://www.canlit.ca/reviews/ (March 24, 2004), Cheryl Lousley, review of Wild Stone Heart.
Nature Conservancy Web site, http://nature.org/ (April 10, 2003), Louis Bayard, review of Old Man on His Back: Portrait of a Prairie Landscape.
Shared Vision Web site, http://www.shared-vision.com/ (June, 2000), Jeffrey Kluger, "Wild Stone Heart: An Interview with Sharon Butala."
United Church Observer Web site, http://www.ucobserver.org/ (July-August 1999), Donna Sinclair, "Seeing Is Believing: Three Women Writers with Visions."
University of Lethbridge Web site, http://www.uleth.ca/ (September 20, 2002), Katherine Wasiak, "Award-Winning Author Sharon Butala Speaks."*