canadian ~ twenty-first century literature since 1999

Falling into Place  

by John Terpstra
Gaspereau Press, 2002

Reviewed by Gilbert Purdy

‘The Halcyon or kingfisher is a good guide when you go to the woods,’ wrote John Burroughs, at the beginning of a late nineteenth-century account of travels through Canada. ‘His time is the time of trout, too, namely, from April to September.’

‘I am attached to a piece of geography,’ writes John Terpstra, at the beginning of Falling into Place. The piece of geography is also Canada. He begins his own journey, aptly enough, riding in a car along his normal route to work. Much of it will be spent in a lay-by, on the outskirts of a small city, with signs limiting parking to 15 minutes. There is no bird-song in this geography. No call of ‘the white throated sparrow,’ such as Burroughs "heard and saw everywhere on the route… called here le siffleur (the whistler)’. None of the ‘thrush, the olive-backed perhaps, like but less clear and full than the veery’s.’ There are cameo appearances of ducks and hawks high overhead but they are silent with distance. The only fish mentioned by name is the carp.

There are none of the ‘mosquitoes and black flies’ either. The only bug throughout is composed of two fishermen ‘their fishing poles bent over the bay like the antennae of a large insect.’ Of course, there understandably are none of the rich fields, the pastures, the horses, the cows. Less understandably, perhaps, there are no flowers: not even dandelions or a single, humble black-eyed susan.

The piece of geography is Hamilton, Ontario. More exactly, it is the Iroquois Bar just at the outskirts of Hamilton. Six bridges and an indeterminate number of railroad lines run through. It is a "traffic corridor" in every sense. Even the Iroquois Indian tribe, after which the bar is named, arrived with the influx of British Loyalists to the area during the American Revolutionary War. Even it moved on after a brief stopover on the way to history.

This place with which Terpstra is ‘so pleased’ only rarely talks to him through flora or fauna. His most fundamental contact with it is through his imagination of the great glacial retreat some ten thousand years ago. The retreat formed the local rivers and creeks, an occasional marsh, and the Niagra Escarpment. It also formed the Bar:

There is something ceremonial about this, the carrying of glacially-transported stones to the meeting place of meltwater stream and lake. Separated by size, the sand and gravel, pebble and cobble were arranged by the two waters, into layers, and deposited, one over the other. With Care. If dance is the engagement of two or more bodies in a ritual activity of proximity and physical contact, that has pleasure written all over it, then this was dance. [p. 25]

The occasional passages of poetic prose, scattered throughout Falling into Place, are generally about water and rock.

Like all imagination, however, Terpstra’s makes for an undisciplined traveling companion. While, in Falling into Place, it is pleasing in its glacial romance, it is often unfortunate elsewhere. From a Robert-Bly-like, genuine Dream Star Lodge ceremony and the movies A Man Named Horse and Little Big Man, for example, it has constructed a pre-European Native American that is caricature. A notable lack of knowledge on the subject leaves the author’s imagination free to indulge its every weakness. Worse yet, it goes back to this cigar-store injun again and again.

There were surely dozens of meaningful titles, available to Terpstra, on the subject. It is clear that he is not utterly without legitimate knowledge: that he must be at least vaguely aware of one or two such titles. Better to have let the matter go – no matter how pop it may be, at present -- than to have gone at it so unadvisedly. From time to time, his imagination needs more grist than it is provided.

After stones and water, the story of the people who passed through -- from Father Louis Hennepin, in the late seventeenth-century, to George Washington Johnson, who wrote a popular nineteenth-century song, to the delightful Granny Mercer – form the narrative thread that makes the Iroquois Bar a "place" for the reader. It is this story which is the strength of the book.

The longer excursions, undertaken by the author, across the Bar, are necessarily begun at the parking lot for the Dundurn Castle, the lay-by having its 15 minute limit. The Castle was built around the original walls of the house of the Beasley’s: perhaps the first landholders in the vicinity of Hamilton. The two form a remarkable house embraced by a house and are now a public museum. Its inhabitants meander through the pages of Falling into Place and give it a continuity that geology does not.

The final thread is a strange one: garbage. The Bar is fraught with highways. Trash is everywhere: hub caps, cigarette butts, styrofoam cups, plastic dolls and much more. Terpstra selects items from among the spew to place on the shelf of "valuable junk" back at his home. It is fitting, but disconcerting, to find it everywhere in the book as well. There is an eccentricity in this which marks this book out from others in its genre.

John Terpstra is correct to observe that a landscape is foreshortened when seen, in passing, from a highway. He has stepped out of his car to see it more clearly – to commune with it. The reader may not agree that the author has succeeded to the extent he believes he has. This is too much "nature seen from the lay-by" for that, perhaps. Read as an account of a more-or-less emblematic attempt to do so, by a modern, post-industrial suburbanite, however, it is a different experience. The distinction between success, failure and foible falls away. The poetry and the illusion – so often companions -- remain. It is an honest and an interesting book on a meaningful topic.

Falling into Place ends with a romantic postlude, 9 pages long, in which a group of friends share a memorial lunch and the identities of the historical characters they have come to imagine. ‘We passed the Jaquet, the Belledune, the Nepissisquit, the Miramichi ("happy retreat") in the night,’ reports Burroughs, at the end of The Halcyon in Canada, ‘and have only their bird-call names to report.’

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