Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 19, No. 2, Spring 1999, pp. 89-95.
When he was five, Wallace Stegner's family moved to a small town and to a homestead on the Great Plains, in the extreme southwestern corner of Saskatchewan just above the Montana border, where they lived for six years before drought and crop failures forced them to move on. Sharon Butala moved to a ranch and farm in the same short-grass prairie country in 1976 when she was thirty-six years old and newly married to Peter Butala, a rancher native to the place. Both Stegner and Butala went on to write about this land, and their representations manifest very different attitudes toward the Great Plains. Curiously enough, Wallace Stegner seems less engaged with the natural world, at least in comparison with Sharon Butala and in the specific context of the Great Plains, than we might have expected. A closer look at their respective works will provide a fuller sense why this is so and of the complex differences between the two writers.
In general, Stegner's experience is past and was formative. He places his childhood experience in the context of his later historical understanding of the region and represents it in the recovery of personal memory, the recounting of the history of a place, and in his fiction. In contrast, Sharon Butala's experience is a transformative, developing one that she describes in her ongoing life in the natural world of the prairie. It is at first "an apprenticeship in nature" and then a "life in nature" (to echo the subtitles of her two works of nonfiction, The Perfection of the Morning and Coyote's Morning Cry) which she represents in personal essay and in fiction. She sees her life in the immediate and local context of the natural world, of the prairie and the flora and fauna on it, and she finds transcendent meanings in that world. Stegner, on the other hand, sees his life in the context of history, of what he calls the last Plains frontier and of the settlers' myth of the garden West, and for Stegner any transcendent meaning resides in history. We see Wallace Stegner finally as the cultured writer and historian who grew out of the "sensuous little savage" of his childhood, while Sharon Butala appears as the rural woman writer in daily contact with the natural world of the prairie.
Wolf Willow is Wallace Stegner's account of six years in his childhood and the history of the place where he spent them. Stegner also recreates some aspects of the prairie experience in On a Darkling Plain (1940) and of his childhood in a section of The Big Rock Candy Mountain (1943) and in several short stories. The child's world revisited in Wolf Willow is framed by Stegner's account of a visit as a "middle-aged pilgrim"(WW, 5) back to the town he calls Whitemud (Eastend, Sasketchewan, in actuality). At the beginning of that visit he describes a walk around the town during which he tries to recover his past, to make memory become real. That happens only in a moment of sensory experience when he encounters "the tantalizing and ambiguous and wholly native smell" (WW, 18) of the bush wolf willow.