(Christian Courier review, Feb. 9, 2015)
God visits Toronto
A divine visitation in Toronto? Would it be detectible? Welcomed? After all, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him” (John1:10). Patricia Westerhof’s debut novel, The Dove in Bathurst Station, winner of the 2014 Word Guild’s Best Contemporary Novel Award, probes the complexity of discerning God’s presence.
Marta Elzinga is seeking a sign. A high school guidance counsellor, she is ironically unable to counsel herself through her own challenges, both past and present: the suicide of old boyfriend, the irresponsibility of her husband, depression about her career and her future. Complicating everything is her heritage of faith. Her father, a Christian Reformed pastor, has always placed his choices in God’s hands. But Marta’s faith is tenuous, plagued by doubt. She believes most major changes in life happen randomly. In the face of such arbitrariness, she is immobilized, admitting to her sister, “I don’t have a plan, you know that. I never have plans.” She longs for divine intervention.
And God shows up. Maybe. Marta witnesses two incongruous events in succession. A wild mink, running free at Toronto Island Airport, stops for an instant to look directly at her in a peculiarly intense way. Then, even more outlandishly, a pigeon boards the subway at Bathurst Station, imperturbably riding along beside her until it chooses to exit “like royalty” at Christie. Marta later identifies it, more correctly, as a rock dove. She accepts the signs as prophetic, “telling her something, inviting her to something,” but her vacillation still stymies her. Should she leave Matt? Apply for a better job? Confront her past, the fear about her culpability in Aaron’s suicide? The visitations comfort Marta, but only to a point:
Her sure belief that God was telling her something had not wavered – but telling her what? Simply that God was involved in her life, that God was with her? If so, his presence didn’t seem to be improving things much. That was probably a blasphemous thought.
Restless, Marta takes up a dubious “hobby,” exploring the subterranean geography of Toronto. Urban spelunking is illegal, but she likes it. She is soothed by the terrain below the metropolis, “laid out in untangled lines,” so different from her knotty life on the surface. The trips beneath the city become a physical first step to another kind of exploration, one she has been resisting – a spiritual journey. Her reluctance echoes that of the biblical Martha who also struggled to step away from the familiar and choose the “one thing needful.”
Gaining momentum from her underground adventures, Marta joins a church study group on Julian of Norwich. Venturing out even further, she flies to Alberta to seek closure about Aaron’s death. There she learns at last what the mink and the dove have been telling her.
In careful writing that rewards careful reading, Westerhof tackles those vexing theological questions – Is God here? Does he have a plan for me? How does God’s will intersect with my responsibility? Blunt doctrine, cut from the fusty pages of 16th century documents, is pasted into real life — in Nazi-occupied Holland, insular prairie communities, Toronto. Her characters are flawed and irresolute, believably frustrating, but they are delineated fairly, with clear compassion, and so we care about them.
Westerhof’s adroit use of spelunking as a motif for spiritual pilgrimage reminded me of Annie Dillard’s masterful essay “An Expedition to the Pole,” likewise structured around an extended metaphor. In the perilous, ill-equipped 19th century expeditions to reach the Poles, Dillard finds an apt illustration for our pitifully inadequate efforts to meet God. She chides, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies straw hats and velvet to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake some day and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return.”
The Dove in Bathurst Station takes God as seriously as Dillard urges. In the dark tunnels, in the visitations of a mink and a dove, Marta is drawn out by “the waking God” to a place of no return. She can’t go back to her life as it was. Her future is unpredictable, but glimpses of grace and possibility light the way.
Westerhof’s novel deserves the commendation it has received. A few passages might be considered mildly graphic, but they are certainly not gratuitous. I look forward to her next book.