Friday, January 25, 2013

That dead woman in Saskatoon

The slaying of a Saskatoon nurse 50 years ago haunts Sharon Butala.

The Saskatchewan writer, now living in Calgary, has published 16 books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as essays and articles, poetry and plays. A new special issue of Prairie Fire magazine focuses on all things Butala.

“I can die happy now,” she joked to Red River College Creative Communications students Thursday, though assuring them that, at 72, she is not planning to do so any time soon.

But she really wanted to talk about the 1962 death of Alexandra Wiwcharuk.

In 2009 Butala published a highly readable book, The Girl in Saskatoon, investigating the case and criticizing the persistent and inexplicable reluctance of justice authorities to reopen it.

Becoming an investigative reporter was terrifying, Butala said.

She was not prepared for the official hostility to her work, and she came to doubt whether the people to whom she sent her questions even received them.

“Pretty soon you start getting paranoid.”

Someone even tapped her home phone, she said.

When a student asked who killed Wiwcharuk, Butala responded, “I wouldn’t dare to say.”

But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t have a strong suspicion.

Butala’s frustration extends to the treatment of her book by HarperCollins, its Toronto publisher.

The company’s choice of title, based on a song Johnny Cash wrote for and sang to Wiwcharuk when she won a radio station contest, limited the book to regional sales, she believes.

Clearly, Wiwcharuk’s relatives and friends deserve answers to the questions Butala raises.

And perhaps the book deserves reissue under a title with wider appeal.

Butala’s original suggestion?

The Sweetest Face on Earth.

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