Growing up in rural Ontario, I was surrounded by parents and siblings but gravitated to the elderly, a grandmother and aunts and uncles, but especially the women, fascinated by the stories they had to tell, awed by the humour and wisdom they imparted. When I opened the book, Season of Fury and Wonder, the first thing I recognized were the voices, what they had to say; some of the elderly opinions were bitter, some wise, but all tested by time.
Sharon Butala, a recipient of many honours and awards for her past works, including plays, novels, memoirs and short story collections, gives us yet another thought-provoking book that does not disappoint.
With her latest short story collection, Butala enters the world of old age which, for many of us, appears as a place of wrinkles, bent bodies and memory lapses. Yet there is discovery, one in which the aged view with a sense of awe. It is also a place Butala’s women have reached bearing feelings of helplessness and frustration at family and society, and their rage is palpable. The author draws her inspiration from established writers that she read in early adulthood, such as Raymond Carver, James Joyce, Willa Cather and Shirley Jackson. She goes a step further and tells each story from the perspective of old women, dwelling on the experiences these women have gathered over their course of living. She writes of their frustrations, their past joys, their conclusions and how sometimes those outcomes are both alien and bewildering.
Her first story, inspired by Raymond Carver’s short story, “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love,” tells the story of a woman visiting her sister and her brother-in-law, who are both dying of cancer. A cold woman, she has never warmed to her brother-in-law, Austen. Raised in a household where emotions were squelched, she begins to learn about love. She sees that it comes unbidden, a “dusky beige-pink”; it is something undefined, and she is surprised, suddenly understanding that love is a wonder to behold. (8)
Butala’s story, “Grace’s Garden,” begins with the protagonist receiving a visit from her pastor who inquires after health. In this short exchange, we see that Grace has left the stove on, and we realize how forgetful she is. She is also defensive, suspicious and stubborn. These attributes cause worry for her family and neighbours. The son and daughter, aware of their mother’s carelessness with burning cigarettes and her dementia, want her to sell her house and move to an old age facility but Grace is reluctant to do so. She believes she will lose her independence. Wanting to remain a free spirit, like Sillitoe’s character in “The Loneliness of a Long-Distance Runner” from which Butala drew her inspiration, Grace makes a decision that she feels is the only one feasible for her. This results in drastic consequences and though shocking, we come to realize it is understandable.
Drawing from Joyce’s short story “The Dead,” the author tells the story of Agnes in her last story titled, “The Departed.” An old woman, she attends a family gathering where she reminisces over the sixty odd years of her life. As she recalls past events, Agnes begins to evaluate that life and sees herself as “the black hole,” the “inexplicable lump,” in the room, someone everybody ignores because she is elderly (89). Once the centre of family activities, she feels she is a has-been and no longer part of the family. The longer she thinks on her past, including the disturbing issues surrounding her male teacher, the more she becomes aware that life is baffling, that “such a mess life was, such a glorious, ridiculous mess” (75).
With a skilful hand, Butala recovers the voices silenced by time and ignorance. Now restored, the voices come to life; they rise to reveal that these women’s lives have meaning, that they matter. The old women appear frail, lost and lonely, yet they’ve endured trials and tribulations in their time, and with both quiet courage and fire they’ve reached the country of old age. The author has listened to their voices and with common sense and a sympathetic ear, she’s shown us that these women demand respect.
Season of Fury and Wonder
by Sharon Butala
Coteau Books, Regina Saskatchewan, c 2018, p.p.110, $24.95
ISBN 978-1-55050-974-8 (sc)
Mary Barnes is a writer living in Wasaga Beach, Ontario.