Difficult Terrain

Reviewed by Susie DeCoste

By infusing landscapes with personal metaphors and showing how people react to and adapt to the spaces that surround them, Sarah de Leeuw’s collection of creative non-fiction essays suggests that physical, geographical places and the human cultures that develop in them are inextricably linked. Essays parallel relationships between people and landscapes: a former landfill signifies a healing relationship; an active volcano stands for a child’s burgeoning self-consciousness and awareness of the world’s horrors; asbestos mining fills the area with a toxic, transient culture; and gardening around an immigrant’s house develops a way of belonging and becoming “emplaced.” Many essays focus on northern British Columbia, and some feature and in turn critique the layout of reserves and towns. For instance, in a vignette in the title essay “Where It Hurts,” a man introduces his wife to their new hometown of Fort St. James, but first pretends by touring her through the neighbouring impoverished reserve instead as a prank. De Leeuw demonstrates how the stark differences between the proximate town and reserve show up in the ways people treat and think of one another.

What lingers after reading the collection is a tragic and worrying motif: that of women and children who are abducted or go missing and whose bodies are found along roadsides, damaged and discarded. In “Where It Hurts,” three women and a teenaged girl are found assaulted and murdered “in gravel pits” or “off the highway.” In “Soft Shouldered,” female hitchhikers along a stretch of Highway 16 (the “Highway of Tears”) disappear, as do children in “Seven in 1980.” At the close of that essay, de Leeuw writes in the style of a newspaper article: “ten children aged nine through eighteen went missing, were reported as abducted, were found slaughtered and mangled across the lower mainland of British Columbia.” This journalistic style is troubling because it distances and sensationalizes these heartrending deaths. Further, this type of discourse does nothing to change the interpretation of the children as worthless; their lives and relationships are not thought upon, only their dead and “mangled” bodies make an appearance here. The lack of reflection risks perpetuating the sense that these lost lives are meaningless and that the situation is hopeless. The collection thus raises the question: if people and places are so connected, is the only way to create change to leave?

Perhaps the most productive way to read the essays about missing and murdered women and children is to see them as crucial conversation starters. Here, ideally yet uncomfortably, readers become responsible for what they witness; they must face these cruelties and find ways to move forward.

This review “Difficult Terrain” originally appeared in Eclectic Mix Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 234 (Autumn 2017): 145-145.

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