The Death of Donna Whalen

By Michael Winter

Criminal trials produce a lot of paper. Hang about a courthouse for any length of time and you’ll see lawyers lugging boxes of documents around on dollies. And as a trial works it way through the system the paper trail starts to snowball, running up copying fees alone in the thousands of dollars as the appeals go on.

The ready availability of so much raw material – judicial rulings, witness statements, surveillance evidence, court transcripts, lab reports, media coverage – can be an irresistible lure, not just for true crime writers but for novelists who see at the heart of all this documentation a story more dramatic and intense than any invented fiction. St. John’s resident Michael Winter was hooked in 1993, when he began collecting a file on the brutal murder of Brenda Young and the subsequent trial of Young’s boyfriend, local rough Randy Druken. Winter’s plan was to write about the murder “in an updated version of Truman Capote’s method.” Then, having second thoughts about “using someone’s tragedy for personal gain,” he put the project into storage.

But the case had a long history (Druken’s conviction was ultimately overturned on the basis of DNA evidence), and Winter found himself returning to his collection of materials with the idea of composing what he has here dubbed a “documentary fiction.”

Calling it fiction seems at first to be a bit of a stretch. What Winter has mainly done is changed the names of the principles (Young is now Donna Whalen, Druken is Sheldon Troke) and put their testimony into the third person. Both of these moves are questionable – the first pointless in the age of Google, the second an artificial and confusing mediation of authentic voices – but the result is a nevertheless compelling reconstruction that gives a raw jolt to the conventional novel form.

With the source material as a given, the selection, arrangement and editing become all important. Winter has done an exemplary job in this regard, orchestrating the various speakers into a tragic chorus over the short unhappy life of Donna Whalen. The off-kilter Newfoundland dialect, rendered here in a collapsed form with a minimum of apostrophes, sets the keynote. “Sot” is used as a past form of “sit” and people are always “after” doing things. There are fights where people are expected to “scrob or kick,” while others get knocked into a “cold junk.”

Language like this marks a geographic and social environment both alien and real. We recognize in the abrupt vernacular of Winter’s oral history universal human passions and relations being expressed with direct immediacy. Sheldon’s avowal of his love for Donna is a dramatic highlight, the emotion ratcheted up through a series of insistent repetitions. And it’s the kind of thing a novelist would have a hard time getting away with:

I love you and I love your friends, I love everything about you all right and I do and I cannot turn around and lie about it because I’d be a two-faced liar right to my eyes, to everybody. I love you more than anything in the fucking world, anything. I would rather turn around and do twenty, twenty-five, thirty, thirty-five, forty, forty-five years in jail because I believe in something and I believe in supporting a cause and that’s you, I believe you are worth it all right.

At the other end of the spectrum from this, one is pulled up short by Donna’s young daughter summing up her mother’s life in a simple couple of lines elegantly placed at the end of the book’s second section: “She was under a lot of stress. She never had no luck with boyfriends and she always had a lot to do.”

This frankness is complicated by Winter’s arrangement of the different points of view and overlapping voices, which makes a muddle of the events being described while adding to the general sense of moral murkiness. One even feels some sympathy for the police being led astray by first impressions that soon hardened into tunnel vision. It is a novel with a cast of victims, and some villains, but without a hero. Adhering to the truth “in as unvarnished a form as possible,” it also describes how that truth is corrupted – not so much by the telling of lies as by our need to explain and make sense of the truth in the form of necessary fictions.

Review first published in the Toronto Star September 26, 2010.

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