Reviewed by J.R. McConvey
As much as real life shapes the novels we read, so can reality act as a prism for books. When I began The Wild Heavens, the debut novel from Nelson, B.C. writer Sarah Louise Butler, the coronavirus pandemic was still a dark shadow on the horizon, and the book appeared as a Bigfoot story, a literary tale of an elusive cryptid.
By the time I had finished, and our current moment had bloomed into the global fever dream it’s become, the book presented itself as a different creature entirely—a sad, beautiful meditation on credulity and belief, and a paean to the mysteries of the natural world, both wondrous and deadly.
Set almost entirely at the site of a small cabin in the mountains of the B.C. interior, the book is the story of Sandy Langley, who wakes one morning to find a familiar set of huge, humanoid tracks leading from her clearing into the woods, and sets out following them. From this beginning, the story unfolds in two timelines: one that follows Sandy through a single day in pursuit of the creature she knows as “Charlie,” with parallel flashbacks that reveal how the cabin, the nearby lake and this mysterious entity shaped her grandfather’s life, and her own. We learn of her husband, Luke, raised as a boy on the same lake—how he was everything to Sandy, and how her life was transformed when she lost him.
The narrative is simple, in the sense of a folktale, and Butler’s prose is friendly and clean. She reserves density for her use of the language of nature. A geographer and an obvious student and lover of the British Columbia landscape, her writing is like a lush and melancholy birdsong, if birds sang the names of the plants and animals found in the mountain valleys of the interior region. Jays, whisky jacks and herons; lynx, pine marten, ferrets and fawns. Pick any page, and you’ll find a feather, a tuft of fur, some telltale scat, or an uncanny footprint in the snow.
Sandy’s grandfather, Aidan Fitzpatrick, is a renowned veterinary scientist, converted in his youth from a career in the seminary by a chance encounter with a massive, hairy bipedal of unspecified origin. He has passed his obsessions, and his knowledge, onto his granddaughter, whom he raised, and as Sandy traipses farther into the woods, we inherit her attention to the landscape around her. The novel at times feels like a shapeshifter in itself, cycling through animal forms like the creature at its heart. In this, it recalls fellow British Columbian J.B. McKinnon’s The Once and Future World, another book that teemed with organic life.
The contrast of rigorous fact with a more mystical awe of nature is one of Butler’s big themes. Both Sandy and her grandfather want truth in fact; Aidan insists on teaching her the Latin nomenclature for flora and fauna, since “common names are notoriously unreliable, being subject to regional variation.” And yet both wrestle with would-be impossibilities that define them, bestowing glory and tragedy.
The hard lesson is that nature is beautiful in part because of its mystery, and dangerous because we don’t understand the full extent of its threats. We want to believe we know everything about it. To feel in control. But the world changes and churns around us, and simply because something is not supposed to be—a bipedal hominid, a global pandemic—it doesn’t mean it won’t, someday, somehow, come to be, regardless of our doubt. Late in the book, Sandy reflects on her many selves, in a passage that, in the present context, falls like an eagle swooping down with talons bared:
“Each time great change landed swiftly I was so stunned, so foolishly taken aback; as though I was the first to experience such transformation, as though it were not the most natural thing in the world.”
We are always learning and forgetting that we are not separate from the natural world, but a part of it, bound to its wild fortunes. Here are the heavens: not a kingdom beyond the clouds, but the terrestrial wonderland around us, the interconnected web of life, in which anything can happen, presenting us with questions we cannot ignore because they are bound to our very survival.
The Wild Heavens works equally well as an escape read, a literary forest bath, a way to ruminate on a society in flux, and a timeless story of love and faith. Order it from a local bookstore, disinfect it and be transformed.
The Wild Heavens is published by Douglas & McIntyre.