Catch Me When I Fall

These compelling stories invite readers to an intimate visit with the people of Poplar Grove, Alberta, a fictional farming community with three generations of Dutch-Canadians.

Set in the present, the stories explore a dying way of life: characters comfortable holding hymnals and cleaning cow’s teats, characters who cook boerenkool, bake boeterkoek, who clean their own houses because a stranger shouldn’t see one’s dirt.

Sometimes poignant, more often wry and gently satirical, the stories probe at what lies beneath the rural clichés and the characters’ external expressions of religious belief.

Catch Me When I FallCatch Me When I Fall was published by Brindle & Glass in March 2011.

Original publications:

  • “Killdeer God” appeared in Room Magazine (32:1)
  • “Probability” was published in The Dalhousie Review (Summer 2009)
  • “How Lovely Are the Feet of Them” is in the Spring/Summer 2009 (Volume 22/23 Number 1) issue of The Nashwaak Review.
  • “Poplar Grove” appears in the anthology Trees Running Backward (Life Rattle Press, 2004)

 

Reviews

Mostly Fiction

Book Quote: “Love, she taught me, is not a feeling. It is an austere and practical discipline. A service. It demands loyalty, devotion, and self-sacrifice.”

Review by Friederike Knabe

Whenever she doubts her role as “just a housewife,” Vicky recalls “Oma,” (her grandmother) giving her the above advice. Oma had escaped to Canada from Holland in January 1945 with Vicky’s father and her other four children with nothing but the clothes they wore, the family Bible and a piece of paper giving the name of somebody to contact. Now, Vicky wants to make good by bringing her Alzheimer suffering father into her home. In her first collection, Catch Me When I Fall, Patricia Westerhof weaves eleven stories into a sensitively imagined, multi-layered tapestry of life in a small farming community in central Alberta. In Poplar Grove, home to Dutch-Canadian immigrants for three generations, the different families have formed, over time, a close-knit community of friends and neighbours where hardly anything escapes the kindly or the scrutinizing eyes of some of the older inhabitants.

Each story stands alone, told in most cases by a narrator of the younger generation, depicting a distinct set of circumstances of one or another family or individual. While telling the stories in a lively, often humorous, and quietly understated way, Westerhof explores deeper human concerns and, in particular, inter-generational tensions and conflicts. The parents and grandparents – the older generation – feel deeply connected to their faith and traditions and are secure in the many rituals established within their church community. Not seeing any reason to question their beliefs in the spiritual and societal order, they come across to the younger generations (and the reader) as somewhat too rigidly stuck in the past; they respond helplessly or aggressively to the rebellious behaviour and actions of the young. The young, at the same time, are experiencing doubts themselves and/or are confronted by what may appear to them as overwhelming challenges, yet, feeling unable to consult their parents or approach the kindly Reverend Dykstra for help or advice.

Westerhof, quite ambitiously it seems to me, aims to tackle such a wide range of social, moral and social problems – a different one in each story – that one wonders how they can all happen in a small community such as Poplar Grove. We meet young Eustace, terrified to admit to his parents that his Jewish girlfriend is pregnant, whereby, in his mind, her background seems to be the bigger of the two offenses. Ruthie, who is gay, suffers through her parents “re-education” attempts until she can no longer cope and leaves. Others, like Helena, try very, very hard to fit into the strictures of the church and community only to discover, in her case, deep secrets that nobody wants to bring into the open. Her story, “Killdeer God,” to me is the most powerful story that delves deeper into the inner struggles of the young than most. In general, there is little substantive or honest dialog between the two generations about the concerns and deeper moral or ethical questions and only a few times do we receive indications that change in the rigid positioning may be on its way.

Nevertheless, I felt that I was being pleasantly passed on from one member in the community to another, being introduced to each personal story. Some characters reappear in one or the other story in the collection adding to the overall impression that these brief family portraits come together as a tapestry of a particular community at an important transition period. Westerhof may want us to discover Poplar Grove as a prism through which to view the wider ranging concerns and problems faced by society as a whole, especially in remoter rural regions. In that sense it is less surprising that so many challenges befall this small community.

Prairie Fire Review of Books

Reviewed by Dave Williamson

Toronto’s Patricia Westerhof draws on her background – a Dutch Canadian community in rural Alberta – for her delightful first collection of short stories, Catch Me When I Fall. The title has its own charm: note the word when rather than if, nicely hinting at a predicament that each protagonist will face, while also suggesting the comfort of the Christian faith.

Each of the eleven stories takes place in Poplar Grove, Alberta, somewhere between Edmonton and Red Deer. The protagonists come from farming families that go regularly to church. The parents foster traditional values, but these are more and more being challenged by their children, in deed as well as in word.

Westerhof treats her material with a deft touch; she has an ability to show both sides of an issue with alacrity and understanding.

The people of Poplar Grove are not tolerant of pregnancy out of wedlock, and that is a calamity in two of the stories. In “You in Your Small Corner,” Eustace faces two problems: not only has he made Naomi pregnant, Naomi is not of the same faith as he – she is Jewish. At the same time that Westerhof conveys Eustace’s anxiety, she also makes the reader chuckle. Here’s Eustace, believing Naomi could look like Humpty Dumpty in a few months: “Maybe more than a few – he was vague about the pace of pregnancy in humans, knew more about hogs and Holsteins than women in that department. Would Naomi stay enormous after the baby? He would be eighteen with a shapeless manatee of a wife. And a kid.” (31)

In the story “Poplar Grove,” the girl narrator is staying with the Van Dykes while her parents are away. While visiting her two younger brothers, who are staying with another family, the Veenstras,she learns of something that is troubling the Van Dykes. Because the story is told from Paula’s point of view, that something – the Van Dykes’ daughter’s pregnancy – is not nearly as alarming as the news Paula’s parents bring home, that her father has an offer from an Ontario university.

Virtually all the characters are treated sympathetically. In “How Lovely Are the Feet of Them.” Eliza is literally afraid of fellow teacher Stan because of his militaristic approach to life and how he might be influencing the students. Halfway through the story, Westerhof shifts point of view from Eliza’s to Stan’s, and we see that he does have a heart – or is he simply planning to woo Eliza?

The first story, “Unfailing Mercies,” sets the tone for the book, promising playfulness in the opening paragraphs, even when presenting a church full of devout Christians:

Gripping his new cordless microphone, the minister stood in front of the pulpit and hollered, “CHRIST ROSE FROM THE DEAD!” his voice as gleeful as if he had just won the Stanley Cup. “HOW DO WE KNOW? BECAUSE OF ALL THE PEOPLE WHO SAW HIM.” A lot of people believe they’ve seen Elvis too, Sarah thought, though her fellow congregants seemed rapt. (1)

“Holy Earth” applies gentle satire to a few contemporary preoccupations. Erin’s brother Peter is getting married and Erin will be a bridesmaid, but she despairs about how she’ll look, being 21 and overweight. Her mother is angry at Peter, who is such a fanatic about the environment, he refuses to send his grandmother an invitation because she’ll have to travel by air – a terrible waste of fossil fuel.

All of Westerhof’s considerable narrative skills are on display in “God’s Laughter.” Again with a just-right delicate touch, the author shows us twenty-ish Ruthie announcing to her parents Alida and Klaas that she is a lesbian. Klaas reacts:

“I hope you’ll change your mind. Maybe see a different counsellor. Until then, we can’t – you’re not – we can’t welcome you anymore.” Ruthie’s eyes, round with shock, met his. Klaas’s chest hurt, and he kept his arms firmly crossed in front of it. Love the sinner; hate the sin, he told himself. “We just can’t condone the lifestyle you’re choosing. We’re not comfortable with those ideas around here.” (60)

This unfolds in a satisfying way as both an authentic real-life experience and a well-crafted story.

Catch Me When I Fall completely succeeds in its portrayal of a community whose parents are coming to grips with the fact that their children will leave their agrarian homes to make their way in the bigger, more complicated world. Patricia Westerhof’s debut is impressive.

Telegraph Journal

In these 11 short stories, Patricia Westerhof peeks into the farm and schoolhouse windows of Poplar Grove, Alberta. It’s a world where “culture and religion (were) as intertwined as beaten eggs.” It’s also a place where love and religion are having a harder time than rural livelihood adjusting to the 21st century. The only advice is to keep quiet.

Westerhof gives voice to these quiet and confused people, and depicts their struggle in finding their own voice against God, family and their love.

Christian Courier

Anthology explores a world of its own.

Reviewed by Nick Schurmann

Set in Canada’s West, Catch Me When I Fall is a fictional collection of short stories that lead the reader through the perspectives of men, women and children who are part of, or connected to, a troubled Dutch farming community. Two generations already have sprung up beneath the original immigrants, and each has entered a world of complexities foreign to the previous. These snapshots speak into the tense and at times awkward silence of some of the most difficult challenges facing the greater Dutch Reformed community today: frayed marriages, doubt, disability, homosexuality and the role of women in the church. Don’t be misled, though, Westerhof is not writing a work of fiction to provide her two cents on hot button issues. It is a sort of commonplace historical study, an anthology recording some of the more ordinary peculiarities of the Dutch Reformed diaspora: the likes of peppermints, Today booklets and dairy farms.

If you are not familiar with the world Westerhof describes, a lot of the book might seem like a big inside joke. Indeed, through the telling of these stories, the reader realizes how much of a world unto itself this culture is. I suspect that the audience that will be most rewarded by a reading of the book is that which is a part of it.

Westerhof writes with quiet intensity and an anthropologist’s eye. Her stories are to us a reminder that the ideological differences that threaten to divide generations have faces. They call us to faith, patience and compassion.