Book Review: Season of Fury and Wonder in the Calgary Herald
Reviewed by: Eric Volmers, The Calgary Herald
By Eric Volmers. The Calgary Herald. July 5, 2019.
In Sharon Butala's short-story collection, aging characters refuse to go gentle into that good night.
Chalk it up to the mysteries of the writer’s imagination.
Despite spending the past four decades immersed in the craft, Sharon Butala admits the ebb and flow of inspiration remains a bit of a puzzle for her. The story behind the stories found in her new collection, Season of Fury and Wonder, seems to be one of unexpected inspiration. For one, they were the first short stories the multiple Governor-General’s Award nominee had written in 14 years. Second, the whole catalyst for the collection was the opening story What Else We Talk About When We Talk About Love, a tale that somehow arrived fully formed in her imagination one morning.
“I didn’t know what happened to my short stories,” says Butala, in an interview from her Calgary home. “It just seems to be common place among writers that they start out writing short stories and at a certain point just never write them again, they go to novels or whatever. That seemed to be what happened to me. I woke up one morning with a full short story completely written in my head. After it, the following nine that are in the book came one by one.”
The opening story does pack a lot of weight into the first nine pages, offering themes that Butala continues to focus on throughout the book. It explores an older woman’s regrets and thoughts on mortality, family dynamics, loyalty and love as she visits her sister’s husband, a man she never particularly liked but who is now dying of a cancer that is only slightly more advanced than his wife’s.
All of the stories in Season of Fury and Wonder have female protagonists, who Butala bluntly describes as “old women” in her preface. Their origins are not completely mysterious. The writer, who will turn 78 this year, says she has been giving the topic of aging much thought in the past nine years.
“I’ve been reading and studying and thinking about, and becoming myself, old people,” she says. “Being old and the process of aging, all the difficulties that go along with it and the way society treats older people, I think that it was just so much on my mind that because I’m a writer it just culminated one morning. My psyche must have been in the right place and there it was. Those short stories were just there. I can’t say more than that because I don’t understand it myself.”
In the story Grace’s Garden, a defiant woman living in a crumbling house and suffering from memory problems angrily rejects overtures from her children and care workers. In Downsizing, an elderly woman sets her sights on finding a new husband.
Bulata matches each of her stories with one that inspired it in one way or another. Grace’s Garden, for instance, owes a debt to Alan Stillitoe’s 1959 story, the Loneliness of the Long Distance Writer. What Else We Talk About When We Talk About Love was a riff on Raymond Carver’s 1981 story What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, or at least the title was. Downsizing was inspired by John Cheever’s 1964 classic, The Swimmer.
The writers Butala drew inspiration from are an eclectic bunch — work by Edgar Allan Poe, Anton Chekhov, James Joyce, Tim O’Brien, Flannery O’Connor and Ernest Hemingway is also referenced as inspiring specific stories — but the throughline is that all are considered masters of their form, whether it be short story, poem or play.
Still, the process of how their work filtered into Butala’s is no easier for the writer to explain than how they originated in her own imagination.
“It tended to be more the case of the story coming to me and, along the way as I wrote certain scenes, I would find in my mind a particular short story and I would see how they spoke to each other,” Butala says. “I just enjoyed myself so much that I can’t really say which came first. They seemed to work together in their own private and unfathomable way.”
The consistency in Season of Fury and Wonder is that all of the protagonists or narrators, regardless of background, are at a similar place in their lives, at least in terms of age. They are also all women. Butala has made a point of giving voice to characters that are often marginalized. She has written 19 books, been nominated for three Governor-General literary awards and became an officer for the Order of Canada in 2002. She has mostly written from the perspective of women, such as her 2015 novel Wild Rose about the injustices of a pioneer woman’s hardscrabble life. She began writing in her late 30s. By that point, she was living on a ranch with her husband in Eastend, Sask. That was where she stayed until she moved to Calgary after her husband’s death in 2007. In 2017, she released the memoir, Where I Live Now: A Journey Through Love and Loss to Healing and Hope, in which she wrote about he grief and loneliness after her husband died. With the new short stories, Butala says she wanted to present fully formed portraits of elderly women.
“I wanted, in the process of writing them, to show how much the elderly woman on the street that people walk by without ever seeing or children are scared of, is actually a human being with a heart and a soul and one who is in pain, one who suffers, one who is struggling with her own identification because she happens to have gotten old and in a time when people are not able to figure out how to relate to the elderly,” Butala says.
Sharon Butala will give a reading at the Fish Creek Branch of the Calgary Public Library on July 9 at 6:30 p.m.