Book Report: Rural genes bring out the best in this author

I would love to know Catherine Holm.

By: Dave Wood, columnist, River Falls Journal

I would love to know Catherine Holm.

Have you ever felt that way about a writer you have never read before?

I’ve just read Holm’s first short story collection, “My Heart is a Mountain” (Holy Cow! Press, $15). It’s a series of beautifully rendered and heartfelt stories about living on the land, which Catherine Holm does with her husband Chris up in Cook, Minn.

There’s a wonderfully mystical story of an old married couple, Clara and Edward, and Clara’s mystification of Edward’s frequent disappearances, going off to see the guys, going off to the deer shack, just going off. As I read it I kept wondering if my own wife feels that way about me when I go off to have coffee with the guys.

Another story is set in Alaska, when a 60-year-old woman, not pretty, meets a younger fellow in a saloon that’s so cold inside they can see their breath. The young man helps the older woman snowshoe into the bush, where she homesteads with his help. Nothing sexual comes to it, but a relationship does that is very touching. Of course he dies before she does after which she touches his face.

In another story the narrator goes to a mountain shack where she grew up before moving to the city. She’s there to be with her mother who is dying of cancer. Her return spikes a desire to return to the land where she was nurtured.

So how can a writer create such moving stories, so realistically? I found out in the last chapter of the book, “Dad’s Rural Genes,” which is not a short story but a confessional about Holm’s father, a St. Paulite:

“When my father died in 1997, my brothers and I…read his writings….In these journal entries, Dad wished he’d spent some time living on a farm….I think it is interesting that Dad had some rural dream inside of him….Dad was always shoving home-processed jars of chutney under my nose, trying to get me to take a taste….I refused to try it, though I may have been being stubborn just for the sake of being stubborn. I’m a lot like my dad that way; I attribute it to his full-blooded Polish heritage. Polish heritage may well have shaped Dad’s rural genes, especially since our ancestors were peasants.

“Frugality, also part of Dad’s rural genes, was a quality I used to disdain. Gradually, I discovered that frugality could give me freedom. If I didn’t have to buy a new car every three years, then Chris and I didn’t have to earn that money. There didn’t have to be a car payment, and I would have more time to write. Dad understood pinching a penny, and while there were times he may have gone overboard….I wish I had understood and respected his frugality better when he was still alive.

“I hope Dad is watching the homestead in the country that my husband I have created with hard work and love. I hope Dad is smiling when I track our expenses and decide to forgo one thing so we can have another. I hope Dad is pleased with what have saved for the long-term. I hope he approves of our land stewardship choices: When we put minnows and ducks in our pond — rather than chemicals — to clean up the pond; when we burn dead grass so it doesn’t get dryer and become a huge fire hazard; when we scavenge firewood so it doesn’t go to waste; when we barter; when we provide our neighbors and ourselves with fresh eggs from our laying flock; when we take the time to camp and be in the woods; when we gather berries and harvest venison; when we labor for sheer pleasure with no agenda. Thank you, Dad, for your rural genes. Are you listening? Are you watching?”

So I guess that’s my answer. And I’m pretty sure any other reader who has lost a parent will find it a satisfying one.

Also thanks to the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, which gave Holm an Artist Support Grant in 2010 and helped make this book possible. For those who don’t know, the council is funded by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund as appropriated by the Minnesota State Legislature with money from the vote of the people of Minnesota in 2008. If I were a Minnesota taxpayer, I’d have wholeheartedly approved of that vote.