Touch by Alexi Zentner. Alfred A. Knopf Canada 2011.
Touch was shortlisted for the 2011 Governor General’s Literary Award.
Like The Free World, Touch tells the story of three generations, but beyond that the books could hardly be less alike. Touch is set in the pioneer mining and logging town of Sawgamet. The narrator is Stephen, who, absent since his teen years, has returned to the village as an Anglican priest, where he will fill the position his ageing stepfather is stepping down from. His mother is dying of cancer and as Stephen sits beside her bed, he remembers the story of his father Pierre and his grandfather Jeannot.
Jeannot founded the town when he arrived as a young man searching for gold. When his trusted dog refused to budge from the spot where he had come to rest, Jeannot decided to stay on and discovered that the dog had been marking a deposit of gold. With the discovery of gold, a rush begins and miners and the people supplying them begin to crowd into the new town. Jeannot sets up business as a logger and soon falls in love with the storekeeper’s sister Martine. They are married.
Thus begins a family saga of misadventure. Plenty happens. Houses are built and burned to the ground. People drown, someone is murdered, fierce snow storms blow all winter and bury homes 3 stories high. Throughout, magical events are woven into the story. A shining caribou leads Jeannot and Martine to a golden boulder. Forest witches menace walkers in the woods and Quallupilluit seek to drown the careless.
While the story has elements of native mythology, it reminded me more of a fairy tale from the Brothers Grimm. I have to admit that, had I followed Nancy Pearl’s Rule of 50 (outlined in this review of Unless) I wouldn’t have finished this book. Its magical tone just didn’t appeal to me, although I did like the ending. In particular, I found the way that the forest is portrayed as dark and dangerous to be very dated and unappealing, and unhelpful in an age when everywhere the natural world is under siege by we humans.
Still, Touch was recommended to me as a wonderful book by a fellow library patron, and of course, was shortlisted for a prestigious award, so clearly others did not feel the same. You’ll have to read it for yourself and reach your own conclusion.