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Dutch-Canadian Writers Contribute to Canadian Literature.


Literary scholarship is an important aspect of ethnic studies. Writers' stories showcase the wide ranging cultural diversity of Canada's ethnic groups. The cultural expressions of some European immigrant groups, such as Dutch-Canadians, have a tendency to be overlooked. Dutch-Canadian literature shares stories of immigration experiences that reveal the assimilation patterns of this immigrant ethnic group. Although it comprises a substantial body of work, including some authors nationally recognized through literary awards, such as Guy Vanderhaeghe who received the Governor General's Literary Award three times, its presence is rarely noted in Canadian literature. The emphasis in this article is on the early works of three Dutch-Canadian writers.

This paper is not a comprehensive survey of the literature written by Canadians of Dutch descent. Nor is it a detailed analysis of their written texts. Its intent is to raise awareness of the diversity of Dutch-Canadian literature, by focusing on the early works of Terpstra, Cook, and van Herk (De Peuter 1991; De Peuter and van Dijk 2010). In their formative years these three authors belonged to families who had recently immigrated to Canada. As a result, they experienced inherent tensions in lifestyles, family relations, and religious issues. Through their poetry, short stories and novels they look at the new world through the eyes of immigrant-strangers. Inevitably, the passage of time changes their perceptions of Canada. For example, Terpstra's perception of Canada shifts from initially negative to more hopeful: he "earlier saw the Canadian landscape as only malevolent... (and later) comprehends that it is a land of promise, a land where transformation is possible" (DePeuter 1991, 49). Immediately after immigration, when familiar frames of references are lacking, and when immigrants experience loss of language, isolation and displacement, the contrast between Dutch and Canadian settings is starkest. This paper focuses on the three authors' early writings in order to (i) capture these agonizing tensions and contrasts between the immigrant background and the new world they experienced; (ii) compare and contrast them seeking to understand their similarities and differences; and (iii) claim that these writings are a legitimate part of Canadian literature in their own right.

Hugh Cook was born in the Netherlands and immigrated to Canada with his family at the age of seven. John Terpstra and Aritha van Herk were born a few years after their families settled in Canada. Although Cook was a child at the time of immigration and, strictly speaking, a first-generation immigrant, De Peuter (1991) differentiates him from those who arrived as adults and labels all three as second-generation immigrants (10).

Immigration is a painful process of dying and casting off the old and of rebirth and adjusting to new customs and a new culture (De Peuter 1991, 9). The three authors tell about displacement, loss of identity, continuity with the past, self-discovery in a new country, and what it means to be a Canadian. The three writers are aware of living in two cultures and the tension that this creates. Each is a stranger trying to fit into an alien geography and foreign cultural landscape; consequently they move beyond the merely descriptive account. They are concerned with a psychological, spiritual, and metaphysical becoming and change, the journey towards self-knowledge and a new identity. Terpstra's focus is on the experience of the new immigrant and his perception of the physical leaving and arriving. Cook reflects on a transition between physical fact and the metaphoric journey. Van Herk defines the immigration process as almost entirely imaginative. Although van Herk's work focuses on the immigrant experience in a postmodern and feminist sense, her writing provides a major contribution to the expression of the immigrant experience in Canada (Verduyn 2001, 18). Van Herk describes her writing as "preoccupied with contemporary fiction that might be designated as ethnic" (Verduyn 1998, 75).

Ethnic Literature versus Truly Canadian Literature

Aponiuk (1996,1) notes that" [a] s early as 1935 (6), Watson Kirkconnell... pioneers the idea of 'a wider conception of... national literature,' which integrates the literature of 'other ethnic groups' into a truly Canadian literature (italics added)." However, Canada's multicultural policies have the effect of dividing Canada's literature into two distinct categories: that of the "first and founding nations" and that of the "other solitudes", i.e., the "ethnic" writers, the "minority" writers, or the "hyphenated Canadian" writers (Aponiuk 1996, 1; 2015, 51; Richmond 1990, ix). Whatever term is used, "it is the ethnic origin and/or the cultural/religious background of the writer which determines whether the writer was relegated to 'ethnic literature,' 'minority literature,'... anything but 'Canadian literature'" (Aponiuk 1996, 2).

Commenting on the rapid increase of ethnic minority writings in the 1980's, Grekul is astonished at the "vast quantity" of Ukrainian-Canadian literature that she discovered in ethnic journals (Canadian Ethnic Studies 2015; Grekul 2005, xi-xii). In the 1990s race and colour are added to the discussion (Grekul 2005, xvi; Verduyn 1998,10) even though Canadian minorities "have never had the luxury of ignoring racism" (Padolsky 1998, 20). Verduyn (1998, 9) assembles essays exploring the dynamics between race, ethnicity, class, gender, and generation. In one of those essays, "The Ethnic Gasp," van Herk (1998b, 79) describes the repeated shock of being "other" as "her ethnic gasp of pain" which occurs as a combination of religion, class and economy.

Aponiuk (1996, 3) notes with regret that by 1990 Canadians seem to have regressed in their attention to ethnic literature and have become less inclusive since Canada's multiculturalism has not produced one universal category of Canadian writings. Grekul (2005, xv) calls it "the boom and bust of ethnic minority writing". Padolsky (1994, 373-375) offers the opinion that the regression happens because multiculturalism offers ethnic minority writers "too little encouragement too late". The threefold challenge for ethnic minority writers includes a reliance on small, minority oriented presses to have their work published, infrequent review of their work, and consideration primarily by minority critics.

Not everyone agrees with the regression interpretation. Young (2001) describes a shift in the paradigm of Canadian literature, which occurred in the mid 1980s. With funding from the Multicultural Program, the scholarly journal Canadian Literature published a special issue featuring Canadian literature and multiculturalism (99). A broader, more inclusive portrait of Canadian literature followed, providing access to writers of ethnicity, race or colour, and promoting the cultural diversity of Canadian society. As a result, access to funding for writers changed from the Multicultural Program to grants from the Canada Council (100-101) and a plurality of literary voices became part of the Canadian literary landscape. Palmer Seiler (2003) agrees that Canadian literature is plural and polyphonic (239). The inclusion of race, class and gender "became the holy trinity of literary criticism" (242). Since the focus in Canada is on language and culture within a bilingual framework, Canada's literature written by ethnic minority writers is open to a multiplicity of voices and includes their work (245).

Invisibility of Dutch-Canadian Literature

The increased emphasis on ethnic minority literature in the 1980s and 1990s can also be seen by the collections of such literature in various anthologies (Grekul 2005; Kamboureli 1996,2007; Pivato 1994; and Verduyn 1998). However, for the most part Dutch Canadians and their literature remain "invisible" in Canadian society (Delafenetre and Neijmann 1997, 208). Even in multicultural anthologies Vanderhaeghe is not included (Delafenetre and Neijmann 1997, 223; Neijmann 1997, 66). Only in their countries of origin are the works of Vanderhaeghe, van Herk and Cook considered to be part of Canadian literature. Both van Herk's book Judith (van Herk 1978) and Cook's book The Homecoming Man (Cook 1989) have been translated into Dutch. It is essential that invisible groups such as the Dutch and Scandinavians are included if one is to gain a complete picture of Canadian English-language literature (Delafenetre and Neijman 1997, 210).

Dutch Canadians have been slow to enter the Canadian literary scene; only after 1970 did they start to produce literature (Delafenetre and Neijmann 1997, 217). After World War II, Canada primarily accepted immigrants whose occupations were in agriculture; consequently many Dutch immigrants had little formal education beyond elementary school. Furthermore, immigrant writers need time to develop a narrative voice to accommodate their new language. Stephen Smith (quoted in Redl 1996, 29) rationalizes that "[I]t takes a writer about ten years after an experience before he is able to use it in his writing.... It takes that long to be absorbed internally and understood". Dutch immigrants who came after World War II, required the necessary time before beginning to share their memories, traditions, values, and visions in poetry, short stories and novels. VanderMey (1983) tells about the personal experiences of immigrants; Schryer (1998) conducts interviews among Dutch-Canadian farmers in Ontario; and Amelink (2006) writes about the efforts of Reformed church members, a subgroup of the Dutch Calvinists, to establish Christian churches, Christian schools and Christian labour unions in Canada. The literary voices of first-generation Dutch immigrant women after World War II are mostly silent because of the language barrier (Vander Mey 1983, 253), except for the letters they wrote home to family and friends.

Ethnic Writers' Ties to Faith Communities

For ethnic minority writers the strong ties to faith and often ethno-religious communities help shape their writing and maintain their identity. Terpstra's and Cook's writing shows a clear link to the Dutch Calvinists. For most first- and second-generation Dutch-Canadian Calvinists, religious identity is more important than ethnic identity (van Dijk 1998, 2001). Although Terpstra and Cook continue to write from their Calvinist viewpoint, consequently with a realist perspective, van Herk leaves the inner ethnic-religious community for an outer, secular-Canadian world (Delafenetre and Neumann 1997, 221), and renounces institutionalized religion along with what she perceives as its paternalistic attitudes and patriarchal theologies (De Peuter 1991, 26). Boelhower (1991, 145-148) has similarly described the secularization of immigrant children from religious homes in America. Van Herk, as a second-generation Dutch immigrant raised in a strict Calvinist home (De Peuter 1991, 26, 97), writes about her father reading at mealtimes from the Dutch family Bible. The Bible plays a significant role in her desire to become a writer, and she explains "Writing has been, for me a gesture larger than faith..." (Verduyn 2001, 78). The reader wonders whether she really leaves her Calvinism behind as van Herk claims, "I am that ethnic being talked about, that stupidly stubborn and Calvinistically motivated Dutch woman" (Verduyn 1998, 78).

The Importance of the Hyphen

Being labelled an "ethnic" or a "hyphenated-Canadian" writer is divisive and is an impediment to the integration of ethnic literature into a truly Canadian literature. Although Mootoo, who was born in Dublin, and raised in Trinidad, is "delighted to be called a 'Canadian' writer" (Kamboureli 2007, 346), van Herk insists she herself is a "Dutch hyphen Canadian" writer. By "Canadian" van Herk means a "global immigrant ..." (Kamboureli 2007, 279). Delafenetre and Neijmann (1997, 216) see van Herk as a non-hyphenated Netherlandic Canadian who still harbors some silent and/or personal ethnic feelings.

Some ethnic writers' "hyphens" disappear when they adapt to the culture of a new country (224). Prior to 1980 Kulyk Keefer did not want to be a hyphenated Ukrainian writer because ethnicity was associated with being of lower class. But since the rise of multiculturalism she adopts the hyphen because it now signifies the connecting of two separate identities, Ukrainian and Canadian. Kulyk Keefer prefers "living in the hyphen" over "living in the margins" (Ledohowski 2007, 125).

Although van Herk accepts the hyphen as a Dutch-Canadian writer, she is less proud of having a Dutch "boer" (farmer) heritage because it has connotations of poverty, of belonging to a lower class, and of being marginalized (Kamboureli 2007, 282). She states "I have tried and remarkably succeeded in effacing as much as possible of both my Dutch and my boer" (282). In contrast to her feelings, van Herk's father does not think that being a farmer (boer) is a degrading occupation, because he always believed that working the land (being a gardener) is a God-honoring vocation (282).

As a child, van Herk wants to forget her Dutch heritage and lose her Dutchness: "I didn't want the tendrils of that clothing, food, religion to be hanging on to me" (Kamboureli 2007, 282). Soon after she starts school she learns to disguise herself to look like the "Other" and not like a "DP" (displaced person) (Verduyn 2001, 21). In spite of van Herk trying to shed her Dutch heritage, Verduyn (2001) notes the Dutchness of van Herk's writing describing van Herk's Restlessness (1998a) as indelibly Dutch. Similarly, van Herk's later works Leading the Parade (2003) and Of Dykes, and Boers, and Drowning (2007) also focus on Dutch idioms, imagery, and language. After more than fifty years in Canada van Herk returns to writing about assimilation, the Dutch language and Dutch traditions.

The Place of Theory in Immigrant Writing

Canadian ethnic groups claim their own voice in their literature in order to ensure the survival and revival of their communities. Minority writers often fear that embedding their writings in a certain theoretical framework will change their stories by changing the intended meaning of their work. Focusing on theories that do not fit the voice of their communities neglects the context of their writings in deeply-held belief systems, gives unrealistic views of their subculture, and ignores cultural differences (Kamboureli 1990, 30-33). Ethnic writings are based on real experiences of the writers; they are "grounded in the ethnic experience" (Pivato 1996b, 34). Many ethnic writers (including van Herk, Cook, and Terpstra) use words and sentences from their ethnic language to add realism and cultural context to their stories. They construct the authentic immigrant experience and such eyewitness accounts can be shared with their community (Gunew 1996, 72). Writing the truth about their experiences limits them to using the realist genre (76). Pivato (1996b, 37) thinks that the reluctance of some ethnic minority writers to give up realism and adopt a postmodern stance is "as much a political position as a literary tendency". Such writers fear that by giving up their stories they will assimilate. Padolsky writes about the intricacies of importing theory on ethnic writing (Verduyn 1998, 15):
Post-colonial theorists wishing to apply their international
comparative models to Canadian writing need to examine not just how the
theory fits the writing, but also how the "new" contexts of writing
challenge the validity of the theory itself. Theoretical concepts from
elsewhere which do not adequately engage non-mainstream Canadian
reality will encounter fundamental problems in claiming relevance to
the contexts of Canadian "pluri-ethnicity" (Padolsky 1996, 18).

For some writers the avoidance of postmodernism is a religious decision. There is a distinction between writers who remain in the Dutch-Calvinist tradition (Cook and Terpstra) and those who do not (van Herk), or who come from another tradition. Those writers who remain within the Calvinist tradition are less likely to embrace a postmodern worldview as their belief in absolute truth tends to a realist genre of writing. Both Terpstra (1982, 1987) and Cook (1984, 1989) explore the experiences of the Dutch-Calvinist immigrants in ethnic religious communities.

Immigrant Women Writers

Aponiuk (1996, 5-6) notes that immigrant women writers are doubly marginalized by their gender and by their ethnicity. Women writers also have to find new ways of communicating as all that is available to them is the language of males and colonizers (Palmer Seiler 1996, 52-3). Many ethnic women writers use women as main protagonists in their writings: (1) to empower female immigrants by giving them a voice, (2) to have them included in the Canadian literary scene, and (3) to broaden the concept of Canadian literature (Aponiuk 1996, 5). Palmer Seiler (1996, 51-60) shows how women overcome the obstacle of this double jeopardy by including the female immigrant story. Similarly, Rasporich (1996, 37-50) sees more inclusiveness within Canadian literature through its featuring "female authors of native ancestry". Van Herk often uses females as main characters in her books (1978, 1981, 1987).

Van Herk (1978, 1981, 1987) is a postmodern, feminist, experimental writer who is critical of realism in the Canadian novel. In her fiction van Herk challenges realism by pushing the boundaries of genre and gender. Unlike other writers, van Herk, in her earlier writings, does not focus on the literal Dutch-Canadian immigrants' experiences partly because of her attempt to shed her Dutch heritage (Kamboureli 2007, 282) and partly because her postmodern view made her avoid realism. "Van Herk regarded immigration as an act of imagination and fictionalization, the immigrant writing themselves into a new being in an act of invention as well as denial and erasure" (Delafenetre and Neijman 1997, 221).

Themes in Dutch-Canadian Literature

One of the recurring themes shared by ethnic minority fiction, including Dutch-Canadian fiction and mainstream fiction, is the search for Canadian identity (Aponiuk 1996, 5). This search has the immigrant living in two worlds "neither here nor there" (Redl 1996, 24), neither completely in Canada, nor completely in their countries of origin (De Peuter 1991). Biblical themes of placing the immigrant narrative in stories of exodus, moving to the promised land, or being a chosen people, are favored by Dutch-Canadian writers. In addition, the theme of flight to a new country is a search for freedom from political and economic oppression and from the effects of World War 11. Everything is viewed through a "black border of death" because of their own war experiences or those of their parents (De Peuter 1991, 24).

The restoration of a garden is another often-used theme in Dutch-Canadian literature. The physical activity of gardening is not only an economic reality and a practice that is continued by many Dutch Canadians in Canada, but more importantly it is the perception that gardening is a God-given task. The gardening theme evokes the promise of new beginnings in a new land. Dutch Calvinists affirm this task by accepting the cultural mandate to "fill the earth and subdue it," as explained by Cook:
It has been the Calvinists... who have most understood Genesis 3,
namely the devastating effects of the fall. But some of the most
important ramifications of the doctrine of the human fall into sin that
form the heart of a Christian understanding of culture are that despite
the fall man did not lose his creaturehood, nor did the fall abrogate
God's command to "be fruitful and increase in number, fill the earth
and subdue it."... but the culture has become broken and fragmented, an
end in itself, serving the creature instead of the Creator. The
Christian writer experiences, as much as anyone, the reality of
antithesis, the battle between the truth and the lie in his art, and
that his literary efforts only see through a glass darkly (Cook 1990,

Other land-based recurring themes in Dutch-Canadian literature include the preoccupation with distance, land, space and the need to explore, map, and subdivide the landscape (De Peuter 1991, 25).

Themes of dislocation and confrontation between cultures, or what Cook calls "one culture rubbing up against another" (Dreschel 1986, 16) are pervasive in the works of most ethnic minority writers. With the passing of time the unfamiliar becomes familiar as a degree of assimilation happens. Palmer Seiler (2003, 247) compares the new world to the Garden of Eden and to a long journey.

The following section focuses on the early works of Terpstra, Cook, and van Herk in more detail as each writer explores their new country, and as they take up a new identity in a new land. In the case of Terpstra and Cook they do not let go of the principles and values of their parents. There is a congruity between the writings of Terpstra, Cook, and van Herk. Each begins with the story of the physical journey and the resolve to transplant oneself firmly in a new homeland. Each describes the feeling of immigrant-strangers and the sense of dislocation and alienation, and explores the process towards completeness (De Peuter 1991, 64).


Terpstra's poetry reflects an all-encompassing Christian view of life which is a response to his own family, and to the ethnic and religious Dutch immigrant community in which he grew up. In an interview with the Christian weekly, Calvinist Contact, he says: "More recently, even though I never considered myself to be a religious ... Christian writer, I've been struck by certain things in the theology I grew up with in the Dutch-Calvinist tradition, and I want to write about that way of seeing scripture or that way of seeing the world" (February 3, 1989, 10-11).

The poems "Forty Days and Forty Nights" and "Peddlars of the Practical" are examples of Dutch ethnic writing which describe the physical and spiritual process of change to a new "land of promise". Terpstra examines the contradictions and turmoil inherent in living between two different worlds. Old ways of seeing are useless in the new country; a new perspective is needed. In the title poem "Forty Days and Forty Nights" the physical immigration experience of his family is compared to the archetypal stories of flight in the biblical story of the flood, of the Israelites' exodus to the wilderness, and of Christ's sojourn in the desert. The Dutch-Calvinist perspective shines through as immigrants see Canada as the Promised Land and are acting on the cultural mandate in Genesis 3. Terpstra continues to describe the journey as a Noah-type quest (43) through images such as "two by two we walked the gangway", "the flood", "our Ararat", "the land the third dove found her branch of olive in", and the "band in the sky" which is a reference to the rainbow (Terpstra 1987, 9-12).

The poem's physical structure resembles the fault line between two realities; some lines of poetry stop halfway across the page only to resume midway on the next line, representing the scission in perception (9). Terpstra uses the metaphor of the dreaded Nazi cattle cars to describe the trains that
       took us all to destinations
pinned onto our shirts
       male and female
we had no names, just places we were sent
       like mail from overseas (9).

Dutch immigrants experience a de-personalization when, upon arrival in Canada, a nametag, number and destination are pinned to their shirts.

Terpstra's entire poem is one of double exposure: one meaning relates to Holland, another to Canada. Awkward translations, such as "band in the sky" or "evergrowing trees" (9) rather than "rainbow" and "evergreen trees", add to the sense of misperception. Terpstra pokes fun at the immigrants' hubris through the narrator's story that describes how the family "walked into town one Sunday and standing on the lawn of someone else's house took the photo we sent home and told them about indoor plumbing, and how everyone had a car" (10).

Terpstra also recounts Job-like experiences, such as the narrator dumping coal into the wrong coal cellar and how he nearly curses as he shovels the coal out again in the pouring rain. Although the process of settling into a new country was very difficult for Terpstra, the sign of the rainbow as a symbol of hope restores his perspective that Canada is a land of promise (12).

In the poem "Pedlars of the Practical" Terpstra (1987) focuses more specifically on land and space. In the tiny country of Holland, land is clearly defined, parceled into neat, square spaces on a grid (Terpstra 1987, 13). In contrast, Terpstra refers to the Canadian landscape as an "untended glacier" (15). The fresh untamed earth, the endless distance, the wide meandering rivers, and the Rockies "like a sea of icebergs" cause consternation for the immigrants (15-16). As the immigrants begin to see from within the new culture, the trees become less threatening and the "untended glacier" comes to resemble a garden to be cared for in God's world. The Dutch immigrant "peddlar", this traveling salesman, discovers that immigration is a journey of opportunity. Dutch Calvinists come in all their hubris to re-settle and re-name the "promised land". Like all newcomers, they experience a sense of multiple realities in this ongoing process of re-defining a new selfhood from within, while not being completely absorbed by the new culture (De Peuter 1991, 23).

Terpstra's motive for writing is to explore the human response to the physical environment, particularly in a spiritual sense:
I think that doing poetry is no more a Christian activity than swinging
a hammer is. By itself a poem is no more a Christian object than the
hammer or the house that was built. But my being a Christian will make
a difference to what I am writing and how I am writing it. I like a
more angled approach to Christianity, something that comes out of the
bushes or from under the porch, not driving down the four lanes of
correct doctrine. Often a poem that looks like a Christian poem really
isn't a poem at all--it's not well enough done to be considered a poem
.... When you're writing, you're writing out of a spirit, or maybe
you're writing the spirit out (Calvinist Contact 1989).

Whether he is making a cabinet or writing a poem, Terpstra is living out his faith in his daily activities.


Cook (1984) also begins with the story of the physical journey to a new homeland. He explores the marginality, split personality, and bifurcated vision of the immigrant-stranger's re-routing. Themes of alienation, confusion of identity and a search to legitimize a connection between past and present, first and second generation, are central to his fiction. His characters encounter tensions between old/new, death/birth, time/space, and Dutch tradition/Canadian modernism.

For new immigrants, the first act is renaming what they see and experience because they have lost all frames of reference. Renaming, or being given a new Canadian name by teachers, neighbours, or co-workers can be a traumatic experience (Cook 2001, 98). Cook describes how he feels about losing all frames of reference.
One of the defining moments of my life, occurred as I stood on a dock
in....Vancouver, February 28, 1950 ....What struck me was that... if
at that moment someone were to... start speaking to me, I had no
language anymore. ... it was if everything I had experienced,
everything I had known, all the things I might have wanted to tell
someone, had been taken from me. I felt alien and alone (Cook 2001,

In spite of his desire to belong, Cook feels strongly that the immigrant community must challenge the concept of assimilation which will exclude Calvinism as a legitimate response.

Like other Calvinist immigrants, Cook attempts to live out his faith in his daily life. He claims Calvinism, that frees him to be creative, as his reason for writing within the Calvinist tradition. "It is our failure to live a full-orbed Calvinism that has prevented us from producing a Graham Greene or a Saul Bellow" (Cook 1990, 8). To write a truly Christian literature is to be expansive and inclusive (De Peuter 1991, 67). Cook does not set out to write "Christian fiction". He points out that
I believe strongly that fiction is fiction, and not propaganda.
Whatever a story means must proceed organically out of the materials
of that story, and cannot be added to the story. When I am writing a
piece of fiction, what it may mean or whether or not it is Christian is
the last thing on my mind. I'm preoccupied with the story.... If my
vision of reality is whole or Christian at all, that vision will
inevitably come to expression through the materials of the story (Cook,
April 24, 1990).

Cook's first book of short stories and also his novel The Homecoming Man (1989) portray his urge to give voice to the Calvinist community for whom the junction of cultures is a process which is still immediate and to which they are still adjusting. The themes of dislocation and self-identification point to a contrast between the desire to name the space inhabited at present and a connectedness with past experience (De Peuter 1991, 68). In the opening story "Exodus" in Cracked Wheat and Other Stories (Cook 1984), Cook writes about a young immigrant couple fleeing the aftermath of World War II. Immigration for the couple is an experience of death and mourning, rebirth and metamorphosis. The feeling of exile and the biblical allusion to escape from disaster in an ark was present in the nailing of the last board of the shipping crate, a miniature ark, and again in the boarding of the immigrant ship. According to Mieke, the wife, the former country and the entire past are surrounded by a black border. Within this black border are the memories of past miscarriages and war horrors symbolized by the trapdoor-coffin lid. For her husband, the past horrors are present in the bloody carcasses, the whirling saw blades, and the German foreman in the meat plant where he works. Although Mieke mentally and physically segregates herself from the new world, she sees the sign of the covenant in her newborn son as Cook intricately weaves the Old Testament signs of blood, circumcision, and water into the images of entering a new world.

Cook's novel The Homecoming Man (1989) is the description of the search for home within a Canadian context by first- and second-generation immigrants. The reader reads the story from the perspective of the middle-aged son, who, after the breakup of his marriage, moves in with his aged father for the summer. The father, a gardener, questions the use of his "home-making" (1989, 51). Even though the father "came home" from prison he can never forget the cruelty he suffered there. The bitter memories of his betrayal of his own brother and his friends make his life unbearable. Immigration doubles his sense of exile and robs him of communication with his family. His self-imposed banishment (immigration) does not permit escape: his nightmare comes with him.

The novel portrays a paradox between the father's outer and inner lives. House and home are symbols of warmth, peace, communion, and belonging. But within the father's house a battle rages between two worlds and two generations. The son eventually understands his father better when he guesses that his father is a homecoming man tortured by survivor's guilt: "Why had I survived when so many had died?" (92). The guilt has blocked the father's communication with his family. Only on the father's deathbed is the son able to forgive his father.


Van Herk uses themes of displacement, alienation and disguise to chart the metaphoric journey of fellow Canadians, particularly women, within the Canadian landscape. She portrays women as immigrant-strangers fitting into a foreign geography. For van Herk the fantastic becomes more real than factual events.

According to van Herk (1984, 15), our internal landscapes are affected by our history, culture, religion, and gender, and in turn we affect the landscape. Van Herk (1984, 15) describes her own vantage point as "both narrow and unlimited". Her outlook is restrictive (narrow) in the religious sense, because she is an immigrant child whose family are Calvinists and "oddballs" (1984, 75). In her childhood her literary landscape is dominated by males, yet unlimited, because it gives her access to an imaginative world which she is free to re-route and re-name. In the past, the prairie landscape has been mapped from the male point of view through the use of metaphors of architecture as in Wiebe's "black steel lines of fiction" (1984, 18). Van Herk refutes the patriarchal view which portrays immigrants as conquerors who achieve a sense of domination over the landscape (1984, 17). She challenges Terpstra's and Cook's attempts to impose pattern and symmetry on the landscape. The landscape defined in such male terms excludes the female identity altogether. She urges women to re-draw the map and to tell stories that men have not told, have not seen, or do not know (1984, 23). In The Tent Peg (1981), van Herk uses a symbolic earthquake to shake up men's version of reality. Although van Herk uses the same images that men use--the same map, hammer, plough, and stake--her sense of place is from a new perspective: the perspective of the earth itself.

Initially the female characters van Herk creates have traditional roles. Judith starts out as a secretary and mistress, J. L. as a graduate sociology student, and Arachne as a bus driver. Her female characters come from familiar sources. As van Herk explains, "I spent a lot of time looking at the women in the Bible and in mythology" (Verduyn 2001, 16). J. L., the protagonist in The Tent Peg, is the Jael of the Old Testament story found in the book of Judges, who frees her people from oppression by driving a tent peg through the head of the Canaanite general Sisera when he comes to seek shelter in her tent. For J. L. the tent peg becomes a symbol of her attempt to drive arrogance out of men's heads.

Each of van Herk's novels is a retelling of an old story from either classical or biblical mythology, formerly told from a male perspective. Judith is a re-constitution of the myth of Circe and Odysseus transferred to an Alberta pig farm. Judith follows her true desires to explore a self that lies outside that defined by men. The Tent Peg is about a geological survey expedition in the Yukon tundra to find uranium (1981, 62, 87). J. L., the only woman on the survey team, gains access to this male bastion of occupation and space by disguising herself as a man and by using the anonymity of initials to obscure her sex. Yet she feels trapped in the traditional female role of physical and emotional nourisher. Her friend Deborah, who appears in the guise of a grizzly she-bear, is her constant source of strength and wisdom. MacLaren (1987, 25) interprets van Herk's character J. L. as a mythical woman set in a Canadian landscape where the characters interact with and transform each other, blurring the line between what is real and myth.

In her third novel No Fixed Address: An Amorous Journey (1987), van Herk's post-modern, feminist form of writing transcends all possible boundaries by transforming the Arachne/Athena myth into an allegorical novel of the immigrant-stranger as vagabond and traveller. Arachne is a symbolic immigrant travelling far and wide, who has no desire to root herself. Life for Arachne is a process of "becoming"; there is no arrival and no homecoming. The narrative structure of the novel defies the conventional form of realistic literature. Arachne is a character led on by her unpredictability using her black Mercedes as her horse and her home (Miller 1986). She disguises herself as an ordinary woman, an underwear salesperson, a bus driver, a child's aunt, or whatever persona suits her purpose. Fantastic incidents occur on her travels, including a graveyard scene and a sexual relationship with an old man. A reader looking for conventional realism may be unsettled by the anarchy of this chaotic postmodern novel. Arachne spins out of control beyond the forces of logic, realism, and plot (ibid.).


This article examines some of the early writings of three Dutch-Canadian authors to show how each writer's social and ethno-cultural background, religious outlook, gender, or personal/artistic point of view influences their style of writing. While Terpstra and Cook use realism, van Herk is intensely critical of realism (Batt 1978, 26). The article touches on the authors' search for a new Canadian identity, the alienation and isolation of new beginnings, the loss of language, the preoccupation with distance, land and space, and the immigrant journey placed in terms of biblical stories of flight and exile. The ties to a faith community and to family, and the haunting memories of their families' war experiences, remain part of the authors' heritage and are brought along with them to the new country.

Upon immigration Dutch Canadians are a people in transition, divided between two cultures. Although letting go of the Old World is to their benefit, they fear assimilation in a new country. Like the explorers in The Tent Peg, the old cultural baggage clouds their vision to new possibilities (De Peuter 1991, 163). Much of the literature produced by the first Dutch-immigrant writers trace their Dutch-Canadian lives. The immigrant stories of their own communities are often told through the eyes of a child, partly because the writers were children when they immigrated and partly because a child sees in an impressionistic manner. Terpstra describes the absurdity of parents strolling arm in arm in European fashion along the North Saskatchewan River, as if walking in the Prinsen garden in Holland. Cook watches with the critical eye of a child as his father gardens according to Dutch patterns. As a child van Herk is ashamed of her father's occupation of "boer" (farmer).

The physical, factual process of immigration as seen in Terpstra's poetry is filled with tensions (being a stranger in a foreign country), intense feelings of alienation (search to connect past and present), traumas of dislocation (having to learn a new language), and disrupted visions (losing all frames of reference). Yet through Terpstra's imagery and imagination, the reader can see this as a journey of opportunity because Dutch immigrants can be stewards of nature anywhere (De Peuter 1991, 156). Cook resolves to come to grips with immigrant experiences and to give voice to a community in transition. He holds on to the larger biblical cultural ideal of Genesis 3, and does not give up Calvinism. Communication is important and as Cook learns a new language, he begins to write in English and makes his story known (157). By contrast, van Herk embarks on a metaphoric immigration, shaking up conventional ways of seeing and writing and charting of the Canadian landscape. She is determined to break open an exclusive male realism so that prairie and landscape can be seen from a woman's point of view (161). No Fixed Address is van Herk's strongest statement on the immigrant experience, a story which is diametrically opposed to tradition, a story of rebellion, innovation, isolation, freedom and spinning out of control. The narrative structure defies the conventional form of realistic literature (138).

Terpstra and Cook review the history and traditions of their communities using a realist genre. Perhaps their religious convictions prevent them from moving into a postmodern style of writing. Van Herk can be called a "shape shifter," re-shaping, renaming, re-figuring Canadian mythology (De Peuter 1991, 115; Hutcheon 1986).

Dutch-Canadian writers give up some of their frames of reference like seeing everything in perfect patterns and cultural values such as the Dutch language, in order to fit into the Canadian literary culture. But they also bring into that new culture their own ideals, values, imaginings, religious convictions and new genres of writing. Hearing immigrant stories from many perspectives enables readers to discover a more varied mosaic from the "blending of many traditions" (Kirkconnell 1967, vii). The induction of Dutch-Canadian voices into the Canadian literary scene blends these ethnic voices "into a truly Canadian literature" (Aponiuk 1996, 1; 2015, 51).


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The author would like to thank the anonymous reviewers who provided helpful comments.

JOANNE VAN DIJK received her PhD in Sociology from McMaster University and lectured in the Department of Health, Aging, and Society and the Department of Sociology at McMaster University. Her research focuses on postwar settlement patterns of Dutch Canadians and on the role of ethnicity and religion in social support systems of Dutch Canadians. She continues her research on aging issues in Dutch immigrant groups.
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Date:Sep 22, 2017
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