Renowned fiction writers Victoria-based Michael Christie and Calgary resident Sharon Butala are in the lineup for STARFest, St. Albert’s main literary festival.
The month-long festival aims to highlight the power of storytelling and takes readers into the intriguing lives of characters often challenged by extraordinary events.
Michael Christie will discuss his latest novel, Greenwood, a dystopian tale framing the stories of four generations of the Greenwood family. It reveals their conflicted relationships with the source of their fortune — trees. Rotting underneath a polished veneer is a knot of lies, omissions and half-truths that are part of the family’s origin story. Greenwood was translated into 10 languages, won the Arthur Ellis Award and was long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize.
In addition, the multi-award-winning Sharon Butala discusses her new novel, Leaving Wisdom. Judith, the main character, is on the way to her retirement party when she slips and falls on ice. She receives a serious concussion that shakes loose a flurry of baffling memories. Unemployed, she leaves Calgary and returns to her old hometown, Wisdom, Sask., to find answers to the mysteries from her past life.
Greenwood starts in 2038 where scientist Jake Greenwood works as a tour guide to ultra-rich ecotourists on Greenwood Island. It is a time of the Great Withering, when an ecological disaster has destroyed most of the world’s remaining forests and the planet suffers through a huge dust storm.
As the environmental collapse heightens, Jake finds refuge in Greenwood’s forests, until someone brings her a journal about her family history. As the plot moves backwards and forwards in time, Jake is introduced to a dying carpenter, an eco-warrior, a blind tycoon and a Depression-era drifter.
“When I first wrote the story, I wanted to tell a family story specific to a family, but one that was also significant to the environment,” said Christie.
“Since it first came out in 2019, a heat dome on our shores was so hot mussels and intertidal life boiled in their shells and died. It was disturbing and a visceral way to see an unfolding crisis,” Christie said.
When Christie began writing the book, he focused on a family tree where people may not be related by blood, but their inheritances can be passed through time.
“Fiction is about the complex and difficult individuals we endure and sometimes miscommunicate with. At the same time, it’s about love, caring and hope. All families are complicated and struggle.”
With all the bushfires in Australia, forest fires in Canada and floods across Asia and Europe, Greenwood immortalizes the present era.
“With this novel, I want to lend a voice and a call to action for our government," Christie said. "We spend trillions of dollars on repairing climate change. Why not put the money to changing the way we live?”
Greenwood is currently in development for a 10-part TV series to be released on Apple TV.
Judith, in Leaving Wisdom, is a mother of four and her relationship with her children is “complicated.” She is also full of unanswered questions about her past. Why was her father, a Second World War veteran, always troubled? Are her brother and sister hiding something from her?
In small-town Wisdom, still suffering from a concussion, Judith spends a lot of her time lying in a dark basement.
“She was living in a condo in Calgary with a lot of traffic, light and noise," Butala said. "But that affected her concussion. She understands her old way of life is over. When she goes to Saskatchewan, there are these villages with old settler houses from the old frontier that are sold for practically nothing.”
She moves into one of the houses but keeps hearing noises that cause her to wonder about the people surrounding her, as well as events that have been jarred from her memories and are bubbling to the surface.
Judith recalls living in a family given to strict religious convictions. However, she ran away from home at 15 to escape the oppressive religiosity. As the story progresses, she comes to understand her father suffered from PTSD after witnessing a horrific atrocity that became impossible to forget, and how his experience created inter-generational trauma.
“More than anything as an elderly person, I know how ordinary people will teach school children about sharing in the qualities of a good human being," Butala said. "But there is also pain and horror in life, and there is no escaping our humanity. We know serial killers and dictators think they can rise above it all. But in the end, we all die. I've been trying to write for 50 years about the qualities of being a human being and a lot is about suffering. It’s how we handle it that matters.”
Butala is the author of 21 novels and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.
Christie's presentation is Saturday, Oct. 21 and Butala speaks about her novel on Monday, Oct. 23. Both events start at 7 p.m. at St. Albert Public Library, 5 St. Anne Street. Tickets are $7 online at starfest.ca