NOMINEE 2011 – Scotiabank Giller Prize
Touch begins with Stephen, an Anglican priest, returning from Vancouver to the northern BC town of Sawgamet where he grew up, just in time for his mother’s death.
Sawgamet was founded by Stephen’s grandfather Jeannot, when he heard a voice in the woods calling his name and his dog, Flaireur, refused to take another step. Back then, as Stephen remembers it from the stories passed down to him, men were giants, or even gods, striving to tame the land. The world of Sawgamet was enchanted, alive with qallupilluit and ijirait, sea-witches and shape-shifters; Jeannot saw caribou covered with gold dust and found gold nuggets the size of boulders. Sometimes winter refused to end, and blizzards buried the whole town in snow for months at a time. Sawgamet was a place where Jeannot had to kill a man twice and then carry the bones around with him, bound in cloth, to make sure he stayed dead.
Years later, with his mother on her deathbed, Stephen tries to piece together the past from myths and stories and memories that he’s not sure he can trust. And not everything is magical: if life in Jeannot’s Sawgamet was richer and brighter than it seems for Stephen now, it was also harder and more brutal, with both fire and ice claiming too many lives before their time. Jeannot never knew his son, Pierre, Stephen’s father, who was himself maimed in a logging accident; Stephen’s childhood was marked by tragic loss, and a lasting pain he must now confront as he considers how to pass Jeannot’s stories on to his own daughters.
A chronicle of the birth of a town and the passing of a way of being in the world, Touch is unique, compelling and full of marvels. But this book captures the most personal moments in life as well as the most dramatic ones – Alexi Zentner conveys three generations of a family’s intimate emotional experience in language that pierces the heart. This beautiful and moving novel is a great story told by a natural storyteller, and to read Touch is to enter an enthralling world that you’ll never want to leave.
About the author
- Nominated, IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
- Short-listed, Amazon.ca/Books in Canada First Novel Award
- Short-listed, Governor General's Literary Awards - Fiction
- Nominated, Scotiabank Giller Prize
Alexi Zentner won the 2008 O. Henry Prize and the 2008 Narrative Prize for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin House and many other publications. His debut novel, Touch, was published simultaneously in Canada, the UK and the United States, and in several other countries. Born and raised in Kitchener, Ontario, he now lives with his wife and two daughters in Ithaca, New York.
Excerpt: Touch (by (author) Alexi Zentner)
The men floated the logs early, in September, a chain of 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 I remember him as a giant.
Despite his bad hand, my father could still man one end of a long saw. He kept his end humming through the wood as quickly as most men with two hands. But a logger with a useless hand could not pole on the river. When the men floated the trees my father watched from the middle of the jam, where the trees were smashed safely together, staying away from the bobbing, breaking destruction of wood and weight at the edges.
The fl oat took days to reach Havershand, he said. There was little sleep and constant wariness. Watch your feet, boys. The spinning logs can crush you. The cold-water deeps beneath the logs always beckoned. Men pitched tents at the center of the jam, where logs were pushed so tightly together that they made solid ground, terra firma, a place to sleep for a few hours, eat hard biscuits, and drink a cup of tea. Once they reached Havershand, the logs continued on by train without my father: either south for railway ties or two thousand miles east to Toronto, and then on freighters to Boston or New York, where the towering trees became beams and braces in strangers’ cities.
I remember my father as a giant, even though my mother reminded me that he was not so tall that he had to duck his head to cross the threshold of our house, the small foreman’s cottage with the covered porch that stood behind the mill. I know from the stories my father told me when I was a child that he imagined his own father—my grandfather, Jeannot— the same way, as a giant. He never met my grandfather, so he had to rely on the stories he heard from my great-aunt Rebecca and great-uncle Franklin—who raised him as their own after Jeannot left Sawgamet—and from the other men and women who had known my grandfather. My father retold these same stories to me.
I had my own idea of Jeannot well before I met him, before my grandfather returned to Sawgamet. And meeting him, hearing Jeannot tell the stories himself, did not make it any easier for me to separate the myths from the reality. I’ve told some of these same stories to my daughters: sometimes the true versions that Jeannot told me, sometimes the pieces of stories that made their way to me through other men and women and through my father, and sometimes just what I think or wished had happened. But even when I tell my daughters stories about my own father, it is hard for me to tell how much has changed in the retelling.
It is more than thirty years past the summer I was ten— my oldest daughter has just turned ten herself—and I would like to think that my daughters see me the same way I saw my father, but it is hard to imagine that they do; my father worked in the cuts taking down trees, and he ran the water when he was younger, poling logs out of eddies and currents and breaking jams for the thirty miles from Sawgamet to Havershand. I, on the other hand, have returned to Sawgamet as an Anglican priest, coming home to live in the shadows of my father and my grandfather in a logging town that has been drained of young men headed off to fight in Europe for the second war of my lifetime.
So many years I’ve been gone. I left at sixteen to Edmonton and the seminary, and then went across the Atlantic, a chaplain for the war. I came back in June of 1919, getting off the ship the day the Treaty of Versailles was signed. My mother would have liked me home, but with Father Earl, Sawgamet did not need a second Anglican priest. I ended up in Vancouver, with a new church and a new wife of my own. I’ve come back to Sawgamet to visit—infrequent though that has been—but now I have returned, at Father Earl’s request, to take over the Anglican church from him. He asked me to come even before it was clear my mother was dying, but still, I almost arrived too late. Soon enough—tonight, tomorrow—my mother will be dead and I’ll have to write the eulogy for the funeral.
I’ve had enough experience with telling others the tired homily that God works in mysterious ways, to know that there is no making sense of the workings of God. Though, if I were to be honest, I would admit that I think of my father and grandfather as gods themselves. I do not mean gods in a religious sense, but rather like the gods that the natives believe preceded us in these northern forests. In that way, my father and my grandfather were gods: they tamed the forests and brought civilization to Sawgamet, and in the stories passed down to me, it is impossible to determine what is myth and what is the truth.
There were only the last few weeks of sitting at my mother’s side, knowing she was preparing to die, and trying to sort out the truths from the myths. I talked with her and asked her questions when she was awake, held her hand when she was asleep. And yet, no matter how many times my thoughts returned to the winter I was ten, no matter how many questions I asked my mother as she lay dying, no matter how many stories I have heard about my father and grandfather, there are still so many things I will never know.
For instance, I never knew how my father felt about his mangled hand, and as a child I was afraid to ask. He did not talk about the dangers; the river was swift and final, but it was out in the cuts, among the trees, when each day unfolded like the last—the smooth, worn handles of the saw singing back and forth—that men’s minds wandered. 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 fl oat. Every year a man came back dead or maimed.
When I was not quite eight, on the day of my sister Marie’s fifth birthday, I had asked my mother about my father’s hand. That was as close as I was ever able to come to asking my father.
“I was thankful,” she said. We sat on the slope by the log chute, looking out over the river, waving uselessly at the blackflies. My father had taken Marie into the woods, the preserve of men, a present for her birthday.
“You were thankful?”
“It was only his hand,” my mother said, and she was right.
That summer morning, Marie had carried her own lunch into the cuts, all bundled together and tied in a handkerchief: two slices of blueberry bread; a few boiled potatoes, early and stunted; a small hunk of roast meat. My father let her carry his ax, still sharp and gleaming though he had not swung it since his accident, and as they walked away from the house, I argued that my father should take me as well, that other boys helped their fathers on Saturdays and during the summers. I was old enough to strip branches, to help work the horses, to earn my keep.
“You’ve been enough,” my mother said, though she knew that I had been only twice, on my birthdays. “It’s too dangerous out there.” I knew she was thinking of the way the log had rolled onto my father’s hand, crushing it so tightly it did not begin to bleed until the men had cut him free. I must have made a face, because she softened. “You’ll go again next month, on your birthday.”
They returned late that night, the summer sun barely drowned, Marie still bearing the ax and crying quietly, walking with a stiff limp, spots of blood showing on her socks where her blisters had rubbed raw, my father keeping a slow pace beside her. My mother stepped off the porch toward Marie, but my sister moved past her, climbing up the three steps and through the door. My father shook his head.
“She wouldn’t let me carry her.”
“Or the ax?”
He kissed my mother and then shook his head again. “It’s a hard day for a child. She’ll go again next year, if she wants.” My mother nodded and headed inside to see to Marie’s blisters, to give her dinner, to offer her a slice of pie.
The next week, Charles Rondeau, bucking a tree, did not hear the yells from the men, and Mr. Rondeau had to carry his son, Charles, bloodied and dead from the bush. Charles was only a few years older than I was then, and a month later, when I turned eight, my mother gave me a new Sunday suit, hot and itchy, and my father went to the cuts without me. despite Charles Rondeau’s death, the season that I turned eight was a good one, the cold holding back longer than usual. My father kept the men cutting late into October. There had not even been a frost yet when they started sending logs down the chute from the mill into the river.
When the last log was in the water, my father waved to us from the middle of the jam, and Marie and I ran along the banks with the other children for a mile or two, shouting at the men. My father, like every man that year, came back from Havershand laughing. They all had their coats off, their long, sharp peaveys resting on their shoulders, and small gifts for their wives and children tucked under their arms. Even the winter that year was easy, and when the river did finally freeze up in December, the latest the ice had ever been, Marie and I had our first new skates. There was still tissue paper in the box. Christmas had come early.
Even though we wanted to be with my father in the cuts during the summers, the winters were better, because at least then we had him to ourselves. School days, he took to the mill, filing blades, checking the books, helping the assistant foreman, Pearl, tend to the horses, but he was home when we were, sitting at the stove at night, listening with us as my mother, a former schoolteacher at the Sawgamet schoolhouse, read from her books. He carved small wooden toys for Marie—a rough horse, a whistle—using his destroyed hand to pin the block of wood to the table. Mostly, though, he told us stories.
I know that out in the cuts he was a different man. He had to be. He kept the men’s respect and, in turn, they kept the saw blades humming through green wood. While their axes cut smiles into pines and stripped branches from fallen trees, while they wrapped chains around the logs, my father moved through the woods, yelling, talking, making them laugh, taking the end of a saw when it was needed. He pushed them hard, and when they pushed back, he came home with bruises, an eye swollen shut, scabs on his knuckles. He made them listen.
At home, he was gentle. At night, he told us stories about his father, how Jeannot found gold and settled Sawgamet, and then the long winter that followed the bust. He told us about the qallupilluit and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loupgarou and the blood-drinking adlet, about all of the monsters and witches of the woods. He told us about the other kinds of magic that he stumbled across in the cuts, how the sawdust grew wings and flew down men’s shirts like mosquitoes, how one tree picked itself up and walked away from the sharp teeth of the saw. He told us about splitting open a log to find a fairy kingdom, about clearing an entire forest with one swing of his ax, about the family of trees he had found twisted together, pushing toward the sky, braided in love.
Our favorite story, however, the story that we always asked him to retell, was about the year he finally convinced our mother to marry him. The last time I remember him telling the story was the spring before I turned ten.
“Every man had been thrown but me and Pearl Gasseur,” he said.
“Old Pearl?” Marie giggled, thinking of Pearl as I thought of him, riding the middle of the fl oat with his close gray hair bristling crazily from his scalp, yellowed long underwear peeking from the cuffs of his shirt.
My father had told the story so many times that Marie probably could have recounted it word for word by then, but like me, like our mother, she still laughed and clapped.
“Old Pearl? Old Pearl?” my father roared, his teeth flashing. “Old Pearl wasn’t always old,” he yelled happily. “Old Pearl could sink any man and would laugh at you while he spun the log out from under your feet.”
“And Mrs. Gasseur was happy to tell you about it,” my mother said. “She was happy as winter berries watching him dunk the boys.” My mother smiled at this. She always smiled. Logrolling in Sawgamet was a tradition. Every year the entire town came down to the river the day before the fl oat. They carried blankets and baskets full with chicken, roasted onions and potatoes, bread, blueberry pies, strawberry wine. My father—and before him Foreman Martin—would roll out a few barrels of beer, and the men took to the water. They spun logs, a man on either end, turning the wood with their feet, faster and faster, stopping and spinning the other way, until one, or sometimes both, pitched into the cold water to raucous cheers from the banks.
“Pearl won ever since I could remember,” my father said.
“He’d never been unseated, but I had to win.” He slapped the worn pine table with his mangled hand and winked at my mother. “Oh, your mother was a clever one.” He stood up from the table and hooked his arm around her waist, pulling her close to him and looking over her shoulder at Marie and me. “She still is.”
He kissed her then, and it surprised me to see my mother’s cheeks redden. Before she pushed him away, she whispered something into his ear and he reddened as well, pausing a moment to watch her take the plates from the table.
“Papa,” Marie said, demanding more.
“Oh, but you know all this already. She married me,” he said, turning back to us and waving his hand, “and here you are.” “Papa,” Marie said again, shaking her finger at him like our schoolmarm.
“Tell it right,” I said.
He smiled and leaned over the top of his chair. “She wouldn’t marry me.”
“But Mama,” Marie asked, “why didn’t you love Papa?”
My father stopped and looked at my mother. This was not part of the story. “Why didn’t you love me?” he said.
“You asked every girl in Sawgamet to marry you,” my mother answered.
“But I only asked them once,” he said, turning back to Marie. “Your mother I asked every day. All of the men had asked her to marry them, even some of the ones who were already married, but I kept asking. Every day for three years I called on her at the boardinghouse, and every day I asked her to marry me.”
“And she always said no.” Marie reached out and cupped the withered fingers of my father’s bad hand in her two hands. He sat down next to her. “Mama,” she asked again, “why didn’t you love Papa?”
“I always loved him, sweetheart,” she said, pouring hot water from the stove into the dish tub. She leaned in toward the steam, letting it wash across her face. “I just didn’t know it yet.”
“So I kept asking her to marry me, until one day she didn’t say no.”
“What did she say?” Marie could not stop herself.
“She said the day she’d marry me was the day I got Pearl into the water.”
“I thought it was a safe bet,” my mother said. “Your father never could seem to stay dry.”
My father was leaning back in his chair now, staring at the moon through the window. He had taken his hand back from Marie, and he rubbed the fingers of his good hand across the back of the bad, as if it ached.
I wanted to hear about his triumph, how that was the year the log had spun so fast he could not see his feet, and how it was not until he heard a splash, and a roar from the banks of the river, that he knew he had finally dunked Pearl Gasseur. I wanted to hear him describe the feel of the cold water when he dove from the log and swam to the bank, the river dripping from his clothes as he walked to my mother. I wanted to see the wink he gave us when he said that our priest, Father Hugo, was asleep with drink at the barrels of beer. I wanted to hear how Father Earl, who had arrived from Ottawa only the day before and who was Anglican and younger than my father, performed the wedding right then and there on the bank of the Sawgamet. But before he could tell us that, before he could tell us how he had to leave the next morning for the fl oat, and how he ran home all the way from Havershand, running to his wife, I asked him, “Do you miss it? Do you miss the fl oat?”
He looked at me for a moment, as if he had not heard my question, and then my mother spoke. “You and Marie wash up now, get ready for bed.”
As I rose from the table, he stopped me. He raised his ruined hand, the fingers curled like a claw. “I miss it,” he said.
He did not tell many stories for the next few weeks, and then when the snow finally melted enough for the men to take out their saws and axes and get into the woods, my father pushed them terribly, as if he knew how bad the coming winter would be. He kept them working from dawn to dusk with not a day’s break until the first of September, when the trees were stacked and lined beside the mill.
The logs had to run the river, of course, for the money to come in, and the winter that Foreman Martin had misjudged the weather and waited too long, the river froze with the logs still in it. That had been a hard winter, with money tight and credit long. When cutting started again in the spring, snow still on the ground, my father crushed his hand the first week, and then later that month Foreman Martin died when the errant swing of an ax caught him across the back of the head. The company gave my father the foreman’s job.
The year that I was ten, ice clung to the banks of the river on the morning of the fl oat, and the men glanced appreciatively at my father, knowing that the freeze-up would not be far behind. The winter was coming early and fierce, troubling even for the few men who remembered the original rush and the year that Sawgamet had turned hard and lean; the boomtown had gone bust and rumors of desperate men eating their mules to stay alive through the snowed-in winter had been overshadowed by whispers of their eating more pernicious meat than what came from mules.
My father pushed the men to send the logs down the chute, screaming at them, adding his weight to the poles when needed, and by supper, Father Hugo and Father Earl had both blessed the float; the men were gone, the logs gone with them. The men came back from Havershand in the snow, cold but laughing, flush and ready for a winter of trapping and hunting, a chance to file saw blades and sell a few furs. But by the end of October the cold ate at us, wind pulling tears from our eyes, solid on our cheeks in moments. Men stacked firewood three rows deep outside their houses, the thump of axes a constant sound. Mothers kept their stoves burning all day, the dishwater they threw out the door freezing as it hit the ground.
The river froze inward, fl at and even near the banks at first, but by November even the fast-moving water at the center of the river, the dangerous meeting of the Sawgamet and the Bear Rivers, had iced over. Daylight fading, we skated on the river after school while shoreline bonfires raged, giving us a place to warm our hands. Girls played crack the whip
LONGLISTED 2013 – IMPAC Dublin Literary Award
“Eerie, elegiac debut. . . . The tales he tells Stephen . . . are woven in so seamlessly that the reader never questions their validity. The rugged wilderness is captured exquisitely, as is Stephen’s uncommon childhood, and despite a narrative rife with tragedy, Zentner’s elegant prose keeps the story buoyant.”
— Publisher Weekly (starred review)
“Alexi Zentner has created a seminal poetic story that resonates in our collective memory of timber, minerals and snow; of ghosts and gods and death; but above all, reminds us of the faith and love and optimism necessary for survival.”
— Linden MacIntyre, author of The Bishop’s Man
“A fantastic story set on the margins of the northern forest, Alexi Zentner’s Touch explores the mystery that connects the heart of the wild with human passion. This is a tale of extremes, both marvellous and magical, yet rendered in honest, grave prose. In the midst of brothels, prospectors, lumberjacks, ghosts, obliterating snowstorms and devastating fires, Zentner strings memory in grave rhythms, making the sound of love. A beautiful first novel.”
— Beth Powning, author of The Sea Captain’s Wife
“In this sweeping family saga, Zentner delves into the heart of myth and memory. Eerie and beautiful, Touch is a love-song to the power—and brevity—of dreams.”
— Johanna Skibsrud, Giller Prize-winning author of The Sentimentalists
"Touch is one of those rare novels that simultaneously takes hold of both your imagination and your heart and does not let go. In sharp, startling prose, Alexi Zentner seamlessly weaves the story of Sawgamet and its inhabitants, creating a world of myth and magic, hard truths, aching loss, and spectacular triumphs. It's a gem of a book."
— Aryn Kyle, author of The God of Animals
"In this accomplished debut, Alexi Zentner draws you in with a kind of magic. He paints a long-gone, near-mythical world of northwestern loggers and miners with such skill that it comes roaring back to life. And no wonder: this book is enchanted with fables, full of images so beautiful and strange that they are haunting. Touch more than delivers on the promise of its title: long after the last page, you will still be in its grip."
— Josh Weil, author of The New Valley
"It's hard to believe this is a first novel - Alexi Zentner is as confident and assured as the old sawyers and prospectors who populate these pages. Touch brings to life a lost world, or maybe just a world we wish was real, in prose as seductive as gold dust. It's a sublime haunting, a ripping yarn, and a killer debut."
— J. Robert Lennon, author of Castle, Pieces for the Left Hand, and Mailman
"Touch is a stunning and provocative debut. Zentner mines the human heart to blend humor with tragedy, myth with reality, addicting his audience to a world as uplifting as it is brutal."
— Tea Obreht, author of The Tiger's Wife
"An affecting debut from a major new talent.
— Philipp Meyer, author of American Rust
“A remarkable novel, full of mystery and beauty, it chills you to the bone and then warms your heart.”
— Mary Lawson, author of Crow Lake
“Alexi Zentner’s Touch is full of a sinister magic straight from the tradition of the Brothers Grimm: the dark, impenetrable forest, the ravenous water-witches, the menace of blizzards, the rivers that swallow people whole and leave them frozen in the ice all winter, straining to link hands. Such savagery, however, only illuminates the deeply human love in the marrow of this novel, which Zentner achieves with incredible grace and greatness of heart.”
— Lauren Groff, author of The Monsters of Templeton and Delicate Edible Birds
“In this accomplished debut, Alexi Zentner draws you in with a kind of magic. He paints a long-gone, near-mythical world of northwestern loggers and miners with such skill that it comes roaring back to life. And no wonder: this book is enchanted with fables, full of images so beautiful and strange that they are haunting. Touch more than delivers on the promise of its title: long after the last page, you will still be in its grip.”
— Josh Weil, author of The New Valley
“[An] eerie, elegiac debut. . . . The rugged wilderness is captured exquisitely, . . . and despite a narrative rife with tragedy, Zentner’s elegant prose keeps the story buoyant.”
— Publishers Weekly