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For William Vande Kopple, family, fishing, and faith are inseparable. In The Catch, a collection of short fiction, Vande Kopple explores the connections within this trinity in both his distant and recent past. Along the way, Vande Kopple instructs himself on the importance of light-hearted hope in all of life, and allows us to overhear. For instance, in “For the Morrow,” perhaps my favorite piece in the volume, Vande Kopple’s dad pulls him out of a seriously dark depression and into bright hope by catching an especially elusive fish.
The Catch consists of twenty such stories, beginning with “Sex Ed: My Early Years,” in which a young Vande Kopple learns lessons on mating and relating from junior high boys, his own wild imagination, and a school of salmon; and ending with “Through the Ice,” in which Vande Kopple’s youngest son outsmarts him when it comes to loving the boy’s dying grandpa. All of the pieces, says Vande Kopple in his preface, “are fiction inspired by but only loosely related to fact” (vii). As most good writers do, Vande Kopple allows each of his stories to take on a life of its own. “But,” he says, “in all that I did with them, I never stopped seeking the truth” (viii). Readers of The Catch will quickly realize that in substance, as well as style, Vande Kopple always seeks the truth with a fishing rod in hand.
Even as he recounts tales of finding the perfect bait for various types of fish, Vande Kopple baits a potentially wide variety of readers with a combination of story, metaphor, and humor. And he ends his stories well, leaving readers to muse rather than reeling them in to a single, obvious conclusion. For example, in the story “All Sufficient?” Vande Kopple laments over his adolescent sons who catch fish despite their lack of effort. When he broods to a retired chaplain friend about how most people, at their cores anyway, would say that “having to earn things is just,” and about how his sons play around way too much to be “earn[ing] the right to catch any fish,” the friend suggests that “play” could be “at the center of the universe.” He goes on to say that the “plain old grace” in the world may extend especially to Vande Kopple’s unruly teenagers. The story ends with Vande Kopple’s cry: “Boy oh boy oh boy!–do you know how hard I’ll have to work to bring myself to believe that?” (113).
In all of The Catch, Vande Kopple shares his struggle not only to believe in such grace but also to live it. He put a lot of work into these stories, but the book is anchored in a profound spirit of play. The stories in The Catch speak to Vande Kopple’s discovery of the playful spirit, despite pride, doubt, and even his Dutch Reformed upbringing.
For instance, in “Clear and Pure,” Vande Kopple pokes fun at his inherited guilt over lifting a finger, let alone fishing, on the Sabbath. In “Too Good to Be True?”–a tale about unbelievable fishing “luck” and a contented though terminally ill colleague–Vande Kopple writes, “I never once heard a relative exult, ‘Laugh! Don’t stop! What a magnificent sound!’ Usually I heard something like, ‘Bill, you better watch it. If you don’t stop now, you know you’ll choke or get the hiccups. You might even get one of those bad headaches that everybody on the one side of the family gets'” (40-41). Vande Kopple’s Reformed faculty colleagues are no better, poking their heads into the faculty lounge to comment, “It sounds like you’re having way too much fun in here!” or sharing about a great getaway, only to end with, “It was so much fun it almost had to be sinful” (41). Vande Kopple considers how these unconsciously appropriated attitudes about strict Sabbath- keeping and the dangers of delight may influence his view of fishing, that view of course being identical with this throughand- through angler’s view of life.
Sometimes Vande Kopple reveals his religious affiliation through more subtle means, allusions planted especially for those readers acquainted with Reformed faith. The story “Bottom Feeders,” for example, opens with this line: “One of my greatest comforts in life is fishing,” sure to elicit smiles or smirks from those familiar with the Heidelberg Catechism (16). Likewise, Reformed ideas about vocation will come to mind for some who read Vande Kopple’s recollection in “Yesterday, Today, and Tomorrow” about receiving “the call” to fish at the ripe age of nine (215). In “Clear and Pure” Vande Kopple even goes so far as to tickle readers who know the Greek term for sin, a concept quite ingrained in Reformed folk, when he says that all people who don’t see fishing in the same way that he does “miss the mark” (23).
According to my count, Vande Kopple doesn’t miss the mark too often in The Catch, although, for me, his too-vivid description of the various ways in which fish hooks become imbedded in human flesh was one such miss (36). Barring a few exceptions like this one, though, Vande Kopple is right on target. Although he artfully laughs about his sober religious heritage, he also demonstrates how learning to live in a spirit of playful, hopeful grace is actually a serious matter. And as he weeds out the little fish of work, order, and control, he finds the big one, that is, the Reformed Christian’s call to dwell in the grace of God.
Reading The Catch makes me want to write good stories, to vacation with my family, and, if not to take up fishing, at least to find some equivalent as rich in metaphor and as able to remind my (Reformed) self that living, learning, and working are best conducted in a playful spirit, that life is lived best when enjoying God’s grace.