Tracking Pasts

  • Nina Newington
    Cardinal Divide. Guernica Editions (purchase at Amazon.ca)
  • Sarah Louise Butler
    The Wild Heavens. Douglas & McIntyre (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Julie Cairnie

The Wild Heavens, by Sarah Louise Butler, and Cardinal Divide, by Nina Newington, both feature women narrators who are on journeys to unlock secrets about their pasts that seep into their presents. There are several ways in which Sandy and Meg’s stories are linked: the characters are born in the 1950s and the present of the texts is the early 2000s; the settings are Western Canada, specifically the British Columbia interior, and Edmonton and the Cardinal Divide; and both characters are parented by men who aren’t their biological fathers. Most significantly, Sandy and Meg are orphans, and this status forces them to live with degrees of uncertainty about their pasts. In exploring the ways in which the past seeps into the present, the texts challenge readers to rethink the narration of Canadian histories, familial and socio-political—a key point in the wake of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada (TRC) on the residential schools.

Sarah Louise Butler’s first novel, The Wild Heavens takes place throughout the course of one day in the winter of 2003. Sandy, who is fifty-one, wakes up to see large tracks in the snow that belong to Big Foot/Sasquatch/Yeti, but is referred to as “Charlie” throughout the text. More than thirty years earlier, her young husband disappears one evening pursuing Charlie, and Sandy is determined to follow these tracks and uncover some truth or clarity about what happened to Luke. The novel moves back and forth between shorter chapters that describe Sandy’s quest and longer chapters about her childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, and early middle age. There is a fairy-tale quality to the text, including the narrator as a motherless child. Sandy is orphaned at the age of seven and moves from Ontario to the British Columbia interior to live with her grandfather, a veterinarian with a research passion for Charlie. There is even a life-sized sculpture of the creature in their cabin’s living room. A single mother and her young son, Sandy’s future husband, occupy the nearby cabin. The two children form an intimate bond that lasts into young adulthood, although there is a brief separation when “our world was breached by the man who would later dwell in my nightmares.” The novel presents the tangible danger of intimate partner violence, and the more complicated threat and beauty of Charlie and the BC interior Meg snowshoes through in her pursuit of the truth. The novel explores the limits of knowing, and Charlie’s confusing and sometimes faint tracks are potent reminders of this.

Cardinal Divide, a second novel from Nina Newington, takes place over seven weeks in 2001, but has a time frame that spans a hundred years. Meg Coopworth has no memory of her life before she arrived, on foot and dishevelled, at the farm of an older couple on the outskirts of Edmonton in 1968. Even her age is uncertain, but she assumes she is around forty-two. The novel shifts between Meg’s workplace, Dreamcatcher Lodge, an addiction recovery facility, and the farm where her widowed father lives. Early in the novel, Ben summons Meg to the farm: “At the risk of sounding melodramatic there is something we need to talk about before I die.” Often seen as Cree, Meg wonders if her adoptive father will divulge that she is a child of the Sixties Scoop. Instead, he tells her, “I’m a woman.” Meg struggles with the disappointment of not knowing her origins and anger about her parents’ “lie.” A new friend and co-worker, Doug, who is Métis, helps her to negotiate both the mystery of her origins and her father’s unfolding story. He asks, “Does he talk about Native people in his stories?”—and his question confirms Meg’s discomfort, “Suddenly I get it, what’s been tugging at me. Dad’s whole story, from when he landed in Canada until he became Ben, there’s not a single Indian.” By fusing the stories of Dreamcatcher Lodge and Ben’s story of arrival and change, the text breathes new life into narratives of settler/Indigenous encounters and histories. Ben’s story and sense of identity as non-binary is understood as Two-Spirit, which is a reframing of queerness through Indigenous epistemologies. The Cardinal Divide in the foothills of the Rockies serves as an evocative metaphor for the co-mingling of stories and histories.

There is a hint at a meeting of stories in The Wild Heavens, between Sandy’s orphan state and an Indigenous friend of her grandfather’s, Jacob, a victim of the Sixties Scoop (“an orphan like me”); but it is a connection that is considered and then dropped. Likewise, in Cardinal Divide, there is no easy symmetry between Ben’s hidden identity and Meg’s uncertain roots. All of the stories in these two novels are ambiguous, and in many respects, unresolved. It would be too convenient to force closure on these “dark chapters in Canadian history,” as Stephen Harper would say and attempt in 2008. In Canada in 2020, we are still tracking our pasts, presents, and futures.



This review “Tracking Pasts” originally appeared in Canadian Literature, 2 Dec. 2020. Web.

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