headless trees jamming the river as far as I and the other
children could see. My father, the foreman, stood at the top of
the chute hollering at the men and shaking his mangled hand,
urging them on. “That’s money in the water, boys,” he yelled,
“push on, push on.” I was ten that summer, and remember him
as a giant.
So begins Touch, Alexi Zentner’s remarkable first novel about the settlement of a Sawgamet, a town in the Canadian Northwest. I was hooked from the opening paragraph.
Jeannot, the novel’s focal character, discovers gold in the belly of a fish when he is seventeen years old and trekking through the woods alone with his dog. This takes place in 1869. He digs up another nugget: this one, the size of a dinner roll, weighs ten pounds. When word of his find spreads, people flock to the area, all of them hoping to stake claim on a fortune. Seemingly overnight, Sawgamet emerges as fully-formed boomtown with brothels, saloons and price-gouging merchants selling potatoes for eight dollars a pound.
The gold boom slowly turns to bust. Jeannot co-founds a lumber mill to take advantage of the timber in the surrounding woods. Lumberjacking is hard work; danger is ever present.
Men I knew had been killed by falling trees, had bled to death when a dull ax bounced off a log and into their
leg, had been crushed when logs rolled off carts, had drowned in the river during a float. Every year a man
came back dead or maimed.
Sixty years after Jeannot first discovered gold, his grandson, Stephen, an Anglican priest, returns to Sawgamet on a church assignment. He arrives days before his mother dies, and it is through his narration that we meet Jeannot and the other finely drawn characters that populate this novel.
At its heart, Touch is a gripping multi-generational family drama chronicling the loves, struggles, and tragedies that befall Sawgamet’s inhabitants. The ice on the river cracks while Marie, Stephen’s sister, is skating, claiming her. His father makes a desperate attempt to save her, and also perishes. Weeks later, their bodies are discovered in the frozen river:
[A family friend] led us to the river, helping my mother down the snow-crusted steps cut into the hill next to the
log chute, holding her arm as we walked across the ice to a small circle of men. The ice was smooth and clean
after a month of scouring from the wind.
The hands were not touching. Even through the place of frozen water covering them, we saw clearly that little
more than the width of an ax blade separated my father’s two hands from my sister’s one. His mangled fingers
on one hand, the smooth, alabaster fingers on the other hand, all stretched towards Marie’s small hand. The
ice, like glass above their hands, thickened as we tried to look further out, to see the rest of their bodies and
As wrenching as moments like this are, the novel abounds in tender, human moments. Zentner is a writer who clearly loves his characters. Not only does he understand their sorrows, he revels in their joys.
Martine, the sister of Jeannot’s store-keeping business partner, Franklin, falls in love with Jeannot. She enlists Franklin’s help in arranging marriage.
Finally, after a while, she locked the store and went back to the small cabin, where her brother slept with a wet
cloth on his forehead. She woke him gently, and when he sat up, she said, “I think I’m ready to be married.”
Franklin stared at her then held out his hand to reclaim the wet cloth. He lay back down and closed his eyes.
“There’s a needle pushing into my head. Something sharp and burning.”
“Yes,” [Martine] said, “that’s what it feels like. Will you talk to him?”
Stephen’s narration, Zentner’s crisp crystalline prose, and the novel’s ease of storytelling reminded me often of Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead. When I mentioned this to Zentner in an email, he responded, “It's funny you mention Gilead. Though I think the books are obviously dissimilar in many ways, I'd count Robinson—and Gilead—in particular as an influence.”
Zentner’s Stephen, although also a man of the cloth, is not as prone to contextualizing the world through scripture like John Ames, the narrator of Robinson’s Gilead. Both narrators provide considered, tonally equivalent reflections.
The most obvious difference however between the novels is Zentner’s use of mythology. Inuit folklore imbues Touch with the kind of animating force that Robinson found chiefly through theological frictions. The surrounding woods are haunted by qallupilluit sea-witches and other baleful creatures of Inuit legend. Some, like the dim-witted mahaha who seek to tickle people to death, are funny but most of these monsters smell of spoiled meat. Perdition is their intention. They drag people to meet their demise in the bottoms of icy rivers, and cause them to lose their way home during blizzards.
Other fantastical moments occur. A snowstorm dumps thirty feet of snow on Sawgamet, providing some of the novel’s most compelling passages. Jeannot and Martine encounter a golden caribou. They track the animal through the forest, where it leads them to a boulder of solid gold.
As the novel deepens, readers gain the sense that almost anything can happen. Zentner plays with these heightened expectations for the fantastical, at times reminding readers that what at first glance appears to be fantastic can have real-world explanations.
Paddling downriver in a canoe with Martine during a snowstorm, an exhausted Jeannot thinks he has died. He sees angels all around their canoe.
The muffled light began to fall away into darkness and the wind settled. Jeannot stopped paddling, letting the
canoe drift through the clouds and curtains of snow…
Each angel they passed seemed like it was dancing methodically, reaching down and then up, pushing and
pulling, or swinging its arms in gentle circles. He could see such a short distance ahead of him, and the
current caused the canoe to pass each angel so swiftly, that Jeannot was unable to make out more than a little
detail: the way the angels’ robes seemed like they were made from snow, a lack of wings or halos, a
preponderance of beards.
It was only when the voices came through his wind-touched ears that Jeannot realized he was not seeing
angels, but rather miners in rubber boots standing in the river, panning for gold despite the onset of snow.
Perhaps Zentner’s biggest accomplishment is that he never allows fantastical elements to overwhelm the human emotions and family relationships that he writes about. Even with the scary monsters and uncanny happenings, I’d still classify Touch as a realistic novel. Characters, rather than legends, are what fascinate Zentner—and this novel will continue to fascinate me for a long time.
Check out this blog again tomorrow—I’ll be posting an interview I conducted with Zentner.