Lilac Moon: Dreaming of the Real West

by Sharon Butala
256 pages,
ISBN: 0002007789

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Brief Reviews
by Cindy MacKenzie

Choosing the symbol of the lilac, the distinctively common but beautiful flower with a potent fragrance, and the ever-changing presence of the moon in a big sky to evoke the prairie landscape, Sharon Butala provides a setting for her original and compelling history of the West in her latest work of non-fiction, Lilac Moon. Written in Saskatchewan's centennial year, Butala fittingly asks herself the pointed question, "What makes a Westerner?" to initiate her exploration of the character of those who inhabit the three prairie provinces. Including both factual and anecdotal information replete with significant dates, people and events, she relates her answer in a poetic and deliberately subjective manner. As she spins metaphors, she also rigorously challenges the myths that sustain persistent stereotypes that would romanticise the pioneers and the pioneering past. The prairies aren't flat, the West is not new, the Prairies do not lack in the high arts, and most importantly, the prairies aren't simply harsh and dangerous but flowering and beautiful.
This is the kind of writing that Butala does well, through a style that is partially reminiscent of the poetic reflections in her tour de force, The Perfection of the Morning, yet grounded in the real experiences of five generations of family history. She makes insightful observations about the natural evolution of political ideologies in each of the provinces, about the way in which prairie cities came into being, and about the influence of Native and French cultures. As she herself states, Lilac Moon is not a departure from her previous work as she continues to write about the world of Western Canadians. In the end, Butala, as an artist, articulates what for many of us remain inchoate images and impressions of the prairie as a place. She herself describes the necessity for the service she performs:

"Through the artists, [residents] see their unspoken dream of the place made real-the one they believe but don't dare to say out loud, or else that, try as they might, they haven't quite managed to formulate. Artists formulate it for them, and say it for them, with the result that then people of a place cohere around those visions, and as a result, begin to feel real."

Butala's efforts to describe Westerners are heartfelt and it is this authenticity that lends weight to the book, enhancing its "truths" about the soul of the prairie just as the lilac does:

"I realized how lilacs are, and have been for a hundred years, a symbol of the prairie West. I remembered how there are-among the ordinary people of the prairie West, at least-always lilacs in yards, as hedges along the sidewalk or on farms leaning against the old settler's house, abandoned years ago for a more modern one. There they continue to bloom, half-wild, often in rich shades hard to find today, filling the air with their wonderful perfume, and the surest sign (after crocuses) that winter won't be returning for many months...So, marking the way across the West, and embedding itself just as firmly as the farmer or the cowboy in the deepest prairie soul, is a scented trail of white, mauve, and purple lilacs, an emblem of, at first, the home left behind, but today, of home itself."

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