Thursday, April 5, 2012


It's Easter this weekend, and even though ours isn't a family prone to big family get-togethers (we're too spread out), it is nonetheless a holiday steeped in family memories of egg hunts time together, so perhaps that's why I've been feeling the family nostalgia lately. When we were kids, for example, my parents, and my dad in particular, used to tell us stories about when they were little kids. Even now when we get together with our extended family from one side or the other, the evening or weekend or whatever inevitably (and wonderfully) becomes all about retelling the same big stories and, if we're lucky, a new one will slide in amongst all the familiar ones. A lot of these stories are ones I know so well that I'm sure I'll tell them to my kids, albeit in a heightened, more exaggerated form, because that's what tends to happen when family stories get passed down. In Touch, Alexi Zentner's debut novel, he ups the ante of the family story in dark and thrilling way to tell a story that is both familiar and completely his own.

Touch is set in the backwoods of B.C., in the (I assume) fictional gold rush/mill town of Sawgamet. The story is told by Stephen Boucher, now in his mid- to late-40s, who grew up in Sawgamet, left for Seminary school at 16, and has now returned to replace his step-father as the Anglican minister and to bury his mother, who is on the verge of death. It's winter in Sawgamet, but not the kind of cruel, punishing winter he remembers. Things have gotten better in Sawgamet, in part thanks to the demand for lumber instigated by the Second World War, which is raging in the far-away background of this novel (Sephen served as a chaplin during the First World War, but that details doesn't figure much into the novel). Stephen has returned home, and as his mother lays dying and he and his wife and their three daughters begin to settle into the rectory, he is understandably drawn to memories of his childhood and the family stories he heard growing up.

Stephen's grandfather founded Sawgamet when he was just a teenager. He travelled from Montreal, heading west for the gold rush, and although he was too late, he didn't let that slow him down. He stole a dog from a witch in Vancouver and went north and when they got to a certain spot in the woods, Flaireur the dog just lay down and refused to go any further. That night, after Jeannot finds a gold nugget in the belly of the fish he catches for their dinner, the dog's voice is stolen by a sea witch – a mythical creature smelling of rotten flesh that has pale, watery eyes – that walks through Jeannot's camp. Terrified, Jeannot determines to move on, gold or no gold, but Flaireur refuses to leave. Deciding he cannot abandon the dog, Jeannot builds a low cabin around him and commences his search for gold. By the time he realizes winter is nearly upon them, he doesn't have enough food set aside, and his attempts to hunt are entirely unsuccessful. Then the snow starts and a strange thing happens: birds, all different kinds, begin to attack the cabin. After opening the door to try and see what was going on, the birds stream in and begin attacking Jeannot and the dog. They fight back, tooth, nail, and knife, and eventually Jeannot has killed all the birds in the cabin, enough to see him through winter. In the cleanup, he sees that the one bullet he managed to fire has lodged itself in the dirt floor of the cabin, right where Flaireur had been lying for months on end. When he digs it out, he discovers a fist-sized nugget of gold. After surviving the winter, he goes south for supplies and when word gets out about his find, a steady stream of men begin to arrive in Sawgamet in search of their fortune.

It's the kind of origin story that would inspire any child living in a remote village at the turn of the century; when it involves your grandfather, though, it takes on mythic proportions. But it is really the stories of marriage that hold the greatest magic for Stephen. The courtship of his grandparents, Jeannot and Martine, for example, is filled with magic – in some ways literally, such as how Martine burst into flame one night forever searing her gold chain into her body – and even their difficulties are the thing of legend. But Stephen, all grown up and an Anglican minister, does not retell these stories with an incredulous tone, or even the hint of a wink. Sawgamet, it is implied, is a deeply other sort of place, steeping in First Nations mythology and the sense that, in a town that remote, where winters come early and snow falls fast and hard, anything is possible.

This perspective means that, as you read Stephen's retold stories, balanced as the are against the reality of his mother's imminent death and recent return, it is unclear whether the strange and otherworldly events he remembers and the stories he tells actually happened or are based on the vivid imagination of a child who grew up with the miracles of the Church in one hand and the mysticism of the woods in the other. These are not ghost stories, they're a way to keep family alive, and as such they defy such easy classification because it doesn't matter. It is, I think, the way you remember family members who died when you were only a child as being enormous. Does their actual height matter? It certainly doesn't make their hugeness at that point in your life any less true. 

They mythology surrounding Stephen's family, and the vividness of his stories, is so palpable and beautiful that it defies the bleakness that could easily creep into a story set at the turn of the last century in the Canadian backwoods. Touch is, in many ways, a novel about storytelling, and by having a narrator who explicitly takes you into and out of stories, it allows you to sit back and just absorb the details and the mystery. Zentner writes right along the line of reality and myth, but he never drops definitively to one side or the other, which means Touch is a novel that doesn't offer up an answer at the end, and is all the more intriguing and darkly delightful for it.

by Alexi Zentner
First published 2011 (cover image from Vintage Canada edition)

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