.. we don't exist at all", ponders Sharon Butala as she completes the narrative circle of this disconcerting and poignant book. Her resolve to tell Alexandra's story, as fully as she possibly can, grew over the period of forty years. Starting from an indescribable, vague curiosity about the fate of the young woman she knew as a young girl the feeling grew into a pledge and at times an obsession. In the final outcome, much more is being shared in this haunting, yet beautifully rendered "meditation on friendship, memory and murder". Comparable to her other non-fiction work, such as Perfection of the Morning: A Woman's Awaking in Nature, Butala, an award winning Canadian author, brings personal memoir, historical facts and context, and her deeply felt connection to the natural environment together in one fluidly written, moving account.
In "The Girl in Saskatoon" Butala embeds a real-life murder mystery into a sensitive, detailed portrait of two girls, Alex and herself, and their time and social environment. Uncompromisingly honest, she reflects on both their lives, comparing parallels and differences in their background and upbringing, always searching for clues that could lift the cloak of secrecy that lies over the case.
The factual details of the murder are clear as they are brutal: a twenty-three-year old nursing student, a popular beauty queen, was viciously murdered in Saskatoon on May 18 1962. Her body was found on May 30, but her killer or killers were not caught. Not only family and friends, the whole city was in shock; murders were extremely rare in Saskatchewan (and in Canada) in the early sixties. While Sharon knew Alex from school and related activities, they had not been close friends. Nevertheless, for some initially indefinable reason she felt troubled by what happened to Alex and why. Over many years, she could not forget the events of the time and started collecting whatever evidence she could find: press materials, interviews of police investigators and of some of those who were the last to see Alex alive on that fateful day. Slowly, her research became known locally, leading not only to new information being offered to her, but also some disturbing indications of surveillance. Aiming more than anything to write a portrait of the girl who was Alex, Butala embarked on a physical and mental journey of discovery and learning that she could not have foreseen.
While the events described and her in-depth reflections are understandably centred on Saskatoon and the province of Saskatchewan, Butala's account has meaning far beyond the local. The account of the inadequate, to say the least, handling of the murder investigation that lasted decades, provides food for thought: evidence was not properly secured; not all witnesses were interviewed nor obvious leads pursued. While new DNA technology allows for identification of criminals long after the event, will it bring this investigation to a close? The book also raises important generational questions, among others, concerning young women's potential and restrictions, growing up in the post-war years into the early sixties; the dubious role of the beauty pageant system that catapulted girls like Alex, unprepared for the ensuing pressure, into local prominence. An important book for all these reasons. [Friederike Knabe]
on March 16, 2008
The Girl in Saskatoon centres on the unsolved murder of Alexandra Wiwcharuk, who died in Saskatoon in 1961. The author, Sharon Butala, doesn't set out to solve the murder but instead takes a different approach in looking at the commonalities in her life and the life of Alexandra, who had been a childhood friend. The book was compelling. The evidence of the murder is provided but it is not the main focus of the book. Butala's writing is much like talking to an old friend. It is conversational with some twists and turns within sentences but it is all pulled together in a way that makes the book fascinating. The portrait painted of Saskatoon as a city and Saskatchewan as a province sets the stage for a murder that still remains unsolved and, while officially still an open case, closed. I really enjoyed this book and I read very little non-fiction. The focus is on the life of Alexandra allowing the author to be true to her story.
on November 13, 2011
I fail to see why this book has recieved so many positive accolades, other than for reasons of its subject matter. Butala's attempt to investigate Alex's life and death seem half-hearted at best; there are many instances where Butala admits her failure to track down important witnesses and historical data, seemingly without regard for any insight which may have been gained. There are also several significant discrepancies between the television documentary Butala refers to and her own accounts. Butala's writing, while accessible, is often amateurish and awkward. At least half the book is an account of Butala's own life, and it seems to be less about Alex's story and more about Butala herself.