December 3, 2021
  • December 3, 2021

StarPhoenix Book Reviews: Sharon Butala and Don Dickenson

By on September 28, 2019 0

Here are two works of fiction by a few expats from Saskatchewan: short stories by Sharon Butala and a novel by Don Dickinson.

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Here are two works of fiction by a few expats from Saskatchewan: Season of Fury and Wonder, a short story collection by Sharon Butala, and Rag & Bone Man, a novel by Don Dickinson (both from Coteau Books, $ 24.95).

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Butala, who was born in Nipawin, educated at the University of Saskatchewan and a long-time Eastend resident, now lives in Calgary, where she continues her prodigious writing output. In Season of Fury and Wonder, she reflected on those classic stories she encountered in her life, especially during her freshman year in college, and structured her collection in response to these stories. If you’re familiar with her latest books or her essay in The Walrus on being the subject of ageism, it’s no surprise that the stories here are all told by or concern older women. And a lot of them – stories and women – are very angry.

Sharon Butala Season of Fury and Awe
Sharon Butala Season of Fury and Awe Photo provided

In “Grace’s Garden”, a woman who is no longer able to maintain her large house sees that her children are trying to move it and, in her son’s case, sell the valuable property.

“She could see she was heading towards the end of possibilities. She wouldn’t move. She wouldn’t.

Later, she concedes that the social worker brought in as mediator treats her at least like a human being, not with the usual voice she has come to know: “the old as stubborn, offensive in their very existence, newly stupid, ineffective and still helpless, too close to death to be disturbed except as packets to bathe and roll in wheelchairs.

In “Devin”, the main character asks, “Why should the life of an elderly person be a bad copy of the life of a young person?” As if being an old person was just being a failed youngster? while in “Sisters” one of them is “a pressure cooker full of steaming rage”. There is also fury against men, as in “Pansy”, and against small-minded towns and societies, in general.

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Butala writes in his preface that as “the world gets closer, gets smaller and smaller, the inner life gets stronger and deeper. Life becomes thought.

These are stories of women reflecting as their physical world draws closer. The wife of What Else We Talk About When We Talk About Love reflects on the concept of love and whether she has ever felt it. She thinks her mother loved her less than all of her children. Now she is being asked to show it to dying relatives.

The Downsizing woman is probably the most active of all the women here. Her husband dies, she wants a mate, so she searches for a suitable partner among all her old boyfriends. The woman in The Things That Mattered simply sits and cries, her response to everything that has happened and everything she sees happening around her.

Butala’s tone can be bitter, her phrases at times serpentine, reflecting the twisted thoughts of her characters as they grapple with their new reality. A character from Butala jokes about phrases à la Henry James, the author knowing full well that she writes them herself.

Season of Fury and Wonder is a stimulating and readable collection, though the characters’ often angry reflections get a little boring. And had the publisher deigned to adopt a typeface that was not so tiny. Who does he think reads a collection of stories about old women?

Not only is the typeface in Don Dickinson’s Rag & Bone Man easily readable, the story is very engaging, even turning into an unlikely page turner at the end. Why improbable? Well, consider the premise: Canadian Rob Hendershot was just cut off by his English hockey team and he’s on the streets in 1974 in London. No one even knows what ice hockey is, but everyone is nervous about the almost constant bombing from the IRA.

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Rag & Bone Man by Don Dickinson
Rag & Bone Man by Don Dickinson Photo provided

Hendershot, with his odd mix of hockey names, gets completely beaten up by a few roustabouts. Two kids resembling Fagin find him and take him to their former employer, Margaret, a very small artist who hires Hendershot to be her model for a huge commission she makes: Beowulf after her defeat of Grendel. She offers him a place to live with George Green, an 83-year-old Cockney who is obsessed with recording every move of a particular Irishman who he’s convinced is part of the bombing campaign. Problem is, he’s Margaret’s lover sometimes, and Hendershot slowly falls in love with the artist himself.

Hendershot is involved in George’s unlikely operation because he wants the suspicions to be true. As he thinks about returning to hockey and comforts himself by imagining Margaret’s bed, he runs through the streets of the city keeping an eye out for and reporting on any strange endeavors.

Dickinson, raised in Waskesiu, educated in U of S, and now living in Lillooet, BC has an enlightened structure here: half of the novel follows Hendershot’s exploits in London in ’74; the other half see him back in 1996 with his 13-year-old son. The boy has big problems at school and doesn’t talk about it. Hendershot’s divorced wife hopes this trip will help heal her son and make the story stand out, but she doesn’t have much faith in her ex. He’s often an idiot when he should be a listening dad, but as we learn through many stories, Hendershot didn’t have the easiest upbringing himself.

Still, with his physical disability, hockey metaphors, and often inappropriate comedic timing, Hendershot is working hard to earn his place on the list. He cannot be excluded from this team as he is the only father of his son, so he has to play to win. Dickinson does the job.

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