Amy Butcher’s memoir about her time with Joy “Mothertrucker” Wiebe on Alaska’s James W. Dalton Highway begins with a bone-chilling observation: “The year that I met Wiebe was a consistently dangerous year for women in America.”
Nearly half a decade later, months after Gabby Petito’s body is found in Wyoming amid cries for more coverage of the hundreds of femicides ignored by the mainstream media, Butcher’s Mothertrucker takes a nuanced look at the stories of women—specifically her’s and Wieibe’s—to understand the complexities of relationships with intimate partner violence.
Wiebe’s notoriety as Dalton’s only female ice trucker was the impetus for Butcher’s initial curiosity, but as they travel together along one of the most dangerous, isolated roads in the U.S., Butcher peels back the layers of both women’s stories to reveal a greater narrative about what it means to have strength as a woman in America. When Wiebe was unexpectedly killed when her tanker overturned, months after their initial trip together, the narrative that Butcher intended to write shifted dramatically.
I spoke with Butcher about how she first connected with Wiebe, what it meant to tell her story without her, and the space that creative nonfiction occupies between memory and fact.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
When you discovered Joy on Instagram, what made you think she’d be someone worth getting to know?
When I eventually found her Instagram, it wasn’t necessarily the photos of her truck or the highway that first pulled me in. It was all the photos of her and her animals. She just seemed like this woman who was in love with the wilderness and in love with animals and that’s always the kind of person I’ve felt myself to be. And then I became sort of fixated on who she was, what she represented, and the life I imagined she lived outside of social media.
What did you imagine her life was like?
It was clear to me that it was such a male-dominated industry. I had never watched the show Ice Road Truckers (to this day, I’ve never watched the show because Joy thought that it was silly and sensationalized) but I would come upon these stills from the show of images of big, burly, heteronormative, masculine dudes—and then there was Joy, who even in her pictures I could tell was very small and petite. I was interested in that dichotomy and in what had brought her to that line of work.
I expected the more I interviewed her, the more that I would hear about the way in which that industry had treated her poorly in a line of work that required physicality and maneuvering of the body. Because you’re not just driving trucks. You’re responsible for tying down the loads and putting on snow chains—things that require strength. And admittedly I was going in with this leading idea that I would find a story of sexual harassment from her workplace, and it turned out to be the opposite. This was the place where she felt most free and respected.
What’s interesting about this book is your exploration of dichotomies and dualities. In fact, Joy seemed to be a counterpoint to a lot of things you were wrestling with in your own life, specifically what it meant to be religious. What was that like?
When I found out she was religious and it almost felt like “oh gosh, how am I going to navigate this?” Because I’m not religious. And at the time, I was in this personal sort of hell with a partner I loved very deeply. A man who was really working to make me feel ashamed and bad about who I was and my identity when it came to faith. At best, for the sake of the writing, I intended to just ignore the fact that she was religious. But the more that I worked on it, the more I realized she was a wonderful counterexample of what it meant to be a person of faith.
When I was with her, I felt calm and loved and accepted, and all these things faith is supposed to be founded on. It made the contrast to what faith looked like with my partner so much more palpable and I was able to recognize the way in which it felt farcical and dangerous.
Joy interpreted things as God acting on her behalf or my behalf, and my partner did that too. But whereas he did that as a mechanism of intimidation, submission, and fear, she did it entirely out of love and connection.
There was also a subversion of expectation as it related to the time you spent with Joy on the Dalton Highway. You went in thinking the climax of the story was going to be one thing, but it turned out to be something else entirely. How did you navigate that?
The hard part of writing this book was simply that this is about a really long highway that just goes on and on and on. The landscape changes, but at the end of the day, I’m still in a truck cab with this woman for over 400 miles. How do you keep a reader’s interest? How do you maintain any sense of tension or variation in a piece like that?
I assumed that reaching the destination, one of the northernmost points in America, had to be, in terms of plot, the big climactic moment. But that’s not how life works. Life doesn’t really care about plot points or the idea of a narrative arc. For a while, that felt like a problem to me.
I worried, as a writer, about tension and narrative when in fact, looking back, and as I wrote about this experience, it was the internal evolution. It was me telling this woman, who had been in not one but two marriages with intimate partner violence, that this was something that I was also experiencing and didn’t know how to navigate. And that I was scared. I realized it’s not about the destination we reach physically, but a destination we reach within ourselves or with another individual.
In the author’s note, you write: “The material in this book is the result of lived experience, extensive research, interviews, journals, and ongoing inquiries. It is also based on memory, particular and private, impressionable and discreet.” To me, this is a thesis on what it means to be a writer as we grapple with how to tell stories of the world—and the reality is that these stories are nuanced and robust and include a lot of layers.
You had to write most of the book after Joy passed away. How did you approach this intersection of research, fact, and memory, especially since she wasn’t around to confirm or corroborate the narrative?
It’s something I’m always thinking about. For this author’s note, I borrowed a little bit of that language from T. Kira Madden and her memoir Long Live the Tribe of Fatherless Girls, which is one of the best books I’ve read in the last few years. She talked about that too—the idea that it’s based on memory and just outwardly saying that memory is wholly subjective. For me, it was important because when I did this trip with Joy in April 2018, I intended to come back in September or October and do the trip again. So much of what I was writing was something I planned to go back and check with her.
This was the first book in which I was writing about a subject other than myself. My first book was about this murder, but it was all through my lens. Writing Mothertrucker was new to me, and I had this idea that it would be a conversational back and forth. Instead, I wrote the first seventy-five pages and Joy died. From there, I had to work off all the photos, all the notes and audio recordings, but also try my best to verify things through her friends and her family and through her own presence online and elsewhere.
It felt important to me that this also be, in many ways, a tribute to this time we spent together, which I believed to be one of several times that we would get to spend together. I think it matters less exactly what happened, but the way I recalled it. I think we recall things the way we do for a reason, and I wanted to honor that sense of truth as well.
So often the moments that move us most or have a profound effect on our lives are ones in which we’re not there with our recorder. We’re not there scribbling in a notebook because we have no idea the magnitude of a moment until after the fact. But I believe, for most people, those are the moments that have the most emotional weight around them. I don’t think that we should in any way discredit them simply because we don’t have documentation verifying every aspect of that memory.
This is a story about Joy, but it is also a story about women and what it means to be a woman in this world. Why her story and why now?
That’s a really good question. I think to a certain extent there’s this idea that when we hold up the difficult things that happen, we are strengthened through the pain: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” To a certain extent, I think it’s this American ideal. But also when we’re talking about gender, when we’re talking about race, when we’re talking about sexuality—when we’re talking about these things in which people are largely and commonly marginalized in this country, when justice is not the same for every American—I really am suspicious of that narrative, who it gives power to, and who it takes power and agency away from.
I think Joy told me about her relationships because it was important to her that I understand why she was the way she was and why she did the work she did. Yes, in part, she did it for her love of wilderness and her love of the Arctic landscape, but more largely and pragmatically, she did it for the money it afforded her as a woman so she could leave and support herself and her daughter, if she had to.
The more I heard her story of her marriage, the more she shared this aspect of her life and was vulnerable with me, I felt this closeness to her that I can’t explain. As a woman who was in a relationship that was abusive and increasingly moving toward physical abuse, I imagined this hierarchy of abuse. There’s this way in which we imagine what an abusive relationship looks like, and anything else we sort of discredit as manageable. The more I was talking to Joy, the more I realized that my partner and I were at this point of escalation where we had moved from verbal and emotional abuse—and we were moving to a place where he was using his body to threaten and intimidate me. And I knew with that escalation, what it would look like if it continued.
I could talk with my students about what they deserved, what it meant to be a strong woman and what feminist literature taught us, until I was blue in the face. But it really took having a woman who had been there to see me, to speak from a place of experience, and see that I deserved better.
I really grappled with the fact that at the end of the day, Joy and I are two white women bumping around a landscape that is stolen land. I know we had so many privileges, including the privilege of belief. In a place like Alaska in particular, there are thousands of indigenous women who are missing, who are murdered. Indigenous women suffer at the hands of intimate partner violence overwhelmingly, and so trying to extend the book’s gaze outward without in any way appropriating that story was important to me. I want it to be a book that challenges our idea of what is and isn’t permissible. And I think, ultimately, I want this book to be a work of advocacy for visibility.
by Amy Butcher
Published November 1, 2021
Kelley Engelbrecht is a writer/essayist based in Chicago and is currently pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction at Columbia College. She also manages and edits Wonderfilled Magazine. Find her on Twitter @_kelleyjeanne.