on August 11, 2008
.. 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]