Mapping Empty Space in Sarah de Leeuw’s Where It Hurts

Canada is full of empty places. I was raised in one, a village smackdab in the longitudinal centre of the country and surrounded by dairy farms. My sense was, growing up, that the rest of the country consisted mostly of villages like mine, a feeling supported by the road trips my parents schlepped our family on each summer, east as far as Quebec City, west to visit my grandparents in Saskatoon, or more west and up, up, up to the Yukon. What I remember most about these trips is staring out the car window at hours-long stretches of yellow fields, brown fields, green forest, brown forest, and lots of rocks. I remember highway. And I remember hundreds of “nothing towns” flashing past. 

In Where It Hurts, Sarah de Leeuw stops to take stock of these places. Set in “throw-away spaces” like Belle Island, Ont. and Prince George, B.C., the essays refute suggestions of inconsequence and vacancy (33). Instead, vivid story-snapshots and powerful, pin-pointed detail document colossal loss and violence in a collection centred around the people preyed upon in Canada’s “empty” places.

As harrowing as this documentation may be, Where It Hurts asserts that injustice left unnamed is injustice made invisible, insidious, and unimportant. In “Soft Shouldered,” an essay about the thirty-three missing and murdered Indigenous women of Highway 16, de Leeuw urges that nothing and nowhere areas, like the side of a road outside a remote northern resource town, are exactly the places “worth looking closely at, if only to see what has disappeared, what is missing” (73).

Where It Hurts implicates the reader directly in the text. Whether employing an intimate, second-person point-of-view or addressing a “you” whose subject ranges from ex-husband to Oma, de Leeuw denies the reader the role of bystander. “Take off your undershirt, sweat-stained from almost four hours of snowshoeing along the Skeena River,” begins “Aesop” (91). “Think of any northern city with mills at its heart,” comes the instruction in “Quick-quick. Slow. Slow” (67). “You hurt in places you didn’t know could exist,” aches the collection’s opening, title essay (28).

Each essay is deeply rooted in space and time, from the last row of the shag-carpeted movie theatre during Terrace, B.C.’s biennial film festival, to “the family Y on a Tuesday night, 7:30 p.m. sharp during the high months of winter” in Prince George (63). This positioning works to both map the contents of “empty” locations and use landscape as a visible symbol of unseen turmoil. In “Belle Island Owls,” the end of de Leeuw’s marriage is tied to Belle Park’s landfill which leaks toxins into the surrounding rivers and lakes. “Seven in 1980” connects the eruption of Mount St. Helens to the murders of eleven children by Canadian serial killer Clifford Olson. The asbestos mine in Cassiar, B.C. is the backdrop to the young women whose bodies are “pulled under the currents of northern rivers” in “What Fills Our Lungs” (60). By linking physical geography with de Leeuw’s experiences and observations, Where It Hurts renders abstractions of grief and cruelty grimly tangible.

In the title essay “Where It Hurts,” de Leeuw focusses on “all the strange truths people keep hidden inside them” (8). Flashing through a series of painful anecdotes, the essay exposes some of these truths: “up in the reserves,” boys hang themselves with garden hoses; a young mother nervously allows a stranger named Cowboy to hold her newborn and then, years later, finds Cowboy’s obituary connected to an article on women found murdered along the Highway of Tears; three men in Terrace, B.C., assault, rob, and set on fire an intoxicated homeless man. Uncovering these stories does not bring healing, but it does demand that we stop and take stock of the suffering.

Occasionally, the essays’ disparate images and anecdotes struggle to coalesce into fully realized metaphor, but this collection is more interested in finding and naming what’s been lost in Canada’s forgotten places than interpreting those losses or suggesting solutions. In “Soft Shouldered,” de Leeuw writes, “the sparseness of findings and inquiries has resulted in almost nothing and so nothing has been circulated…So begin with me at the edge. That borderland where pavement ends and soft shoulder begins” (72). 

Where It Hurts is at times brutal in its refusal to look away. However, by studying the toxins seeping from landfills scabbed over, by pulling over to the side of the highway, by noticing the fire and the “smoke hanging in the air containing fragments of a man who has burned to death,” the essays show how in isolated, overlooked spaces, people are similarly ignored and erased (100). With precise and potent essays, Where It Hurts memorializes those who have disappeared too soon from the landscapes they considered home.

Review by Sarah Ens, co-editor of the RVRB. A poet and essayist, her work has appeared in Poetry Is Dead, Sad Mag, Room Magazine, and Arc Poetry Magazine. In 2019, she won The New Quarterly’s Edna Staebler Personal Essay Contest. Her debut collection of poetry, The World Is Mostly Sky, was released with Turnstone Press in Spring 2020. 

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