Falling into Place

by John Terpstra
328 pages,
ISBN: 1894031601

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A Sense of (Canadian) Place
by W. J. Keith

"This book is what happens when one person becomes completely enamoured of the landscape in the city where he lives." A provocative sentence that not only makes up the complete "Introduction" to Falling into Place but is reproduced on both the front and back covers. Moreover, it is true.
The fact that the city in question is Hamilton, the steel-company-dominated city at the western end of Lake Ontario, may surpriseūeven amazeūsome readers. As for myself, I lived in Hamilton for five years in the early 1960s, and I confess that I never developed the fascination and love for the place that John Terpstra manifests here. Yet he manages to persuade me that I was wrong. Slowly and meticulously he pieces together the history of the original settlement, chronicles the development of the modern city, and learns how to read its landscape as one might read a now-battered but intriguing old book. And it needs to be said at once that an interest in Terpstra's findings is by no means confined to residents of Hamilton and its environs. His is a book to interest all readers who are concerned with a proper relationship between humanity and the earth.
John Terpstra is a poet with several books of verse to his credit, and he works as a carpenter; which means that he has a well-developed sense of craftsmanship in both words and materials. A Canadian by birth (though neither born nor brought up in Hamilton), he is of Dutch extraction, and brings an inquiring, Old-World, historically-informed curiosity to his subject. The result is a book that resists all conventional categories. It is made up of a series of sensitively written essays interspersed with the occasional relevant poem. The prose pieces vary between personal reminiscences, researched articles on local history and geology, reports on statistical investigations, meditations on human attitudes and aspirations, and at least one whimsical fantasy ("Submission to an Unannounced Competition for Proposals Toward a Vast and Total Redevelopment of Niagara Falls"). Yet what one might expect to end up as a miscellaneous, undisciplined rag-bag becomes instead an absorbing literary construction that discovers its own highly satisfying unity.
Terpstra's book is a fine example of what Hugh Hood, in A New Athens, called "instant archaeology." Hood posed the question "How much past is past?"łthus opening the way for the kind of humanly centred historical investigation that Terpstra conducts here. The history (one should perhaps say white history) of the area extends back for only two hundred years. Much of the area is now an amalgamation of brick and concrete under which most of the earth has been buried. Terpstra patiently sifts through the humanly created rubble as lovingly as if it were the levels above Homeric Troy. In addition, to be fair to Hamilton, he also celebrates his local hero Thomas B. McQuestin, the early twentieth-century civic politician who preserved the green areasłthe parks, the Royal Botanical Gardens, Cootes Paradisełthat provide relief from the barren stretches of industrialized waste land.
"I am attached to a piece of geography." This is the first sentence of the book, and it is repeated on several subsequent occasions to become a sort of continuing leit-motif. Falling into Place documents this attachment, and so becomes as much a story of Terpstra's relation to the place as an account of the place itself. Though exacting in his historical inquiries, he makes no attempt to be "objective" in the dry, pseudo-scientific sense of the term: "Understand that this is a landscape I love, the one I have adopted, or that has adopted me ... There is no way to explain this love of place other than to say that I want to be here ... Some of us rely on the visible world more than others. Our physical surroundings mean something to us ... Any place truly loved and attended to will respond in kind." From an obscure corner of Hamilton, he thus moves out to the reader's own place, wherever that may be.
As a dedicated writer Terpstra sees the process not only in human but in imaginative terms, and employs his capacity for metaphor to convey his point. "I am attracted to these places of broken beauty, these abandoned parts of a broken body," he remarks at one point. In a subsequent section, he notices a discarded plastic doll thrown from a passing car on a highway verge, and a day or two later, over the guard-rail, sees an arm which he recognizes as belonging to the doll. Metaphor has become reality. But, returning for the doll, he finds that a city works-crew has been clearing up and has removed it: "...the body had never been whole, it was broken the first time I saw it." Not just metaphor, but poetic metaphor. Yet between the references to the "broken body" and the broken doll, he inserts a section in which his more pragmatic brother dismisses one of his comments as merely "a nice metaphor," and Terpstra realizes that what he wants is not metaphor (poetic or otherwise) but "the thing itself." In such passages what began as historical reconstruction is transformed into assured art.
Because it is read primarily for its content rather than for its style, non-fiction prose is the literary genre in which works of permanent literary interest take longest to be recognized. But Falling into Place, an artful, imaginative, but marvelously sane book (illustrated, I should note, with deft drawings by Wesley Bates and elegant maps by Glenn Macdonald), deserves to become a modest but palpable classic. ņ

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