Sunday, April 27, 2008

The Girl in Saskatoon by Sharon Butala

Canadian history and interest has always been a subject of mine that I pay a lot of attention to, so when I saw this book, I found myself curious about just who "The Girl in Saskatoon" was. It was a topic that hit national airwaves when it happened, but it was several years ago, so I had no memory of ever hearing about it before. I am on the east coast, though, so I imagine if you were on the west it is still a topic that gets mentioned from time to time and people still remember what they were doing when they found out.

In 1961, a country singer named Johnny Cash chose a beautiful young woman named Alexandra Wiwcharuk to be his “Girl in Saskatoon” and sang to her in front of a hometown crowd. A few months later she would be found brutally murdered on the banks of the Saskatchewan River. As Sharon Butala notes, “An entire city came to a stop.” Her high school friend Alex had dreamed of becoming a glamorous stewardess; she had been crowned a beauty queen in local pageants; she was about to graduate as a nurse. Her brutal killing became a touchstone moment for Saskatoon residents: years later, people could still remember exactly what they were doing when they heard the news. Why was Alex’s murder so haunting? And why did Sharon Butala return some 40 years later to reconstruct Alex’s life and search for answers?

Some said they never forgot because the victim was so lovely and innocent; others said it because the killing was so brutal (although her skull was fractured, Alex died of asphyxiation from being buried alive); still others maintained the death never left them because the killer was never found. Butala faces down the graphic horror of these events to create a stunning and lyrical portrait of a world where life appeared so much simpler, when young country girls such as Alex came to the city and dreamed their dreams of love and marriage, when life seemed filled with endless potential. The Girl in Saskatoon is, at once, an in-depth investigation of an unsolved murder, a nostalgic coming-of-age story, an intimate quest for roots, and a meditation on the nature of good and evil and the true meaning of a life. Written in Butala’s spare but eloquent style and set against the prairie landscape that inspires all her work, this unforgettable story will appeal to fans of her bestselling book The Perfection of the Morning, as well as to true-crime readers.
I have to point out, I am not much of a true crime reader. I imagine I might have overlooked this book if I didn't find it very interesting that Johnny Cash sang a song to her. It was very good marketing to put that little tidbit on the back cover. I am glad I read the book, though. It was totally new to me, as far as I can remember, so I learned a lot. It is not just a book about the murder, but about Saskatchewan and how it has changed in the last forty or so years. I have never been that far west, but I still found the evolution of the town interesting. It was also one woman's obsession with a young woman that she knew of in high school, but was never really friends with, just found herself later in life wanting to get the info out there about her brutal murder. It would be wonderful if the book sparked people's memories and the murderer was found, because the case remains open, and no one ever found out what happened to the girl in Saskatoon.

So, this was not the best book I have ever read, but it was a worthwhile read. I think true crime fans would enjoy it, I only read it because of the Canadian connection and curiousity. Alexandra Wiwcharuk, 'The Girl in Saskatoon", led an interesting life. It was just like most other people's when you get right to the bottom of it, but for some reason she was murdered on the banks of the Saskatchewan River and her murderer was never found. Her steps have been retraced until moments before her murder, but then things get hazy and no one knows what happened. There are lots of theories, of course, but none of them ever really revealed a convincing suspect. It is a shame, really. Soon it will be fifty years since she was murdered, it has already been 47, and the case is just as much a mystery. With all our technology, we cannot close this case for a grieving family and town.

There is a lot more going on in this book, but it is Sharon Butala's take on things. She could very much be in the right with her opinions, but at the same time, she could just be writing things as she calls them. Especially when she looks at the police and how they handled this case. I don't want to take one person's word for it, so I will let those who want to read it see the opinions for themselves and make their own decisions.

To see more about this book, click here. My thanks to Harper Collins for sending me an Advanced Reading Copy of this book!

This is also a book for the Themed Reading Challenge.


  1. Anonymous6:00 PM

    This sounds like an interesting book. I like true-crime books and am always looking for a new one. Thanks for the review.

  2. Does sound good. It is amazing that with all our technology we can't find the killer. TV convinces us that we can uncover the most unlikly of clues.

  3. Anonymous1:08 AM

    This book has a lot of judgement. The girl only went to school with Alexandra, wasn't her friend at all. She lied quite a bit and put a lot of her on personal biases in the book.

  4. Anonymous12:36 AM

    This book was inaccurate in many ways. First of all, Alexandra grew up on an established farm. Sharon tries to find common ground between herself and Alexandra, but there is very little, because Sharon did not know Alexandra very well at all. I found the book's narrative very boring. There is nothing new from chapter to chapter, that is in reference to the case. Although, Sharon does bring the case back into the limelight. I think Sharon started with a great idea, and lost her direction. Mirrors how the investigative attempts have been.

    The Wiwcharuk family are on a quest to find the killer(s), and they have never lost hope that this will be accomplished.

  5. I am from Regina Saskatchewan and not only have I read the book which I found really good, but I visited the crime scene a couple of months ago. I stood just above the area where the body was found. The murder had a huge impact on Saskatoon and many people describe how they began locking their doors and watching their backs after the discovery of Alex's body. I have met locals who were in the crowd at the time she was found and others who describe the fear they felt as time went by and the killer wasn't caught. It might be hard to understand today with all the crime we have now, but in 1962 there was very little crime in a town like Saskatoon. I hope the family is successful in locating the killer, whether he/they are dead or alive today. Justice is the issue here, not just the murder of one single woman.


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