Touch is also a frontier novel. The fleeing teenaged Jeannot set up shop in the wilderness here only because his dog refused to go further. It turns out the reason the dog stopped was because he was sitting above a large, buried piece of gold, which Jeannot eventually finds. That not only provides him economic security, it provokes a gold rush — Jeannot wisely gives up prospecting himself to set up a lumber business, selling at very high prices to those searching for ore. Gold rushes come and go, but logging always remains. In the present tense of the book, that business is still booming — now producing the timbers that a nation which has just entered World War II requires.
Touch is also a spiritual book, not just with the Christian narrator and his pastor stepfather, but with the indigenous spirits that come with the territory. The idea of faith and just what to have faith in is ever present in the book. The way that Zentner handles these over-arching, intertwining themes is best illustrated from a quote early-on in the book, as the narrator recalls his father. In the woods, he was a logging foreman who had to be as tough as tough was required:
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 qallupilliut and Amaguq, the trickster wolf god, about the loup-garou 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.
Three generations, all of whom have to battle for survival. A punishing frontier, that while yielding both gold and timber, never yields completely. Native spirits, “the monsters and witches of the woods”. It should come as no surprise that omniscient Mother Nature is a fourth thread of the book: She is always present but the dramatic turning point of the novel comes with the winter that featured “thirty feet of snow”.
Any one of those four threads could serve as a defining theme for traditional Canadian fiction — I’m pretty sure if I went back to Margaret Atwood’s 1972 critical work, Survival, I would find examples (if not whole chapters) devoted to each of the four. And while Canadian fiction has moved beyond merely works about “survival”, it does not mean that they have disappeared completely — a couple of years back, Giller Prize judge and British author, Victoria Glendenning, got in some hot water here when she wrote a UK newspaper column that referenced the prevalance of these kinds of themes in contemporary Canadian fiction. You can read a short quote from that column introducing my review of Jeanette Lynes’ The Factory Voice, another Canadian survival novel (albeit a more urban one) set in the same time frame as the present of this novel.
Zentner goes beyond the norm, however, by including all four themes, rather than just one or two. And he complicates matters further by moving backwards and forwards in time — the narrator frequently invokes lengthy memories to introduce stories of what happened two generations ago, but equally frequently returns from those memories to the present to draw implications and lessons from the incidents, both major and minor, that occured decades ago. The constants, of course, are the resources (both mineral and arboreal), the aboriginal spirits and the unrelenting climate that offers as many bad years as good ones.
While the result is not totally successful (let’s face it, a lot of juggling is required to keep four strains with that kind of impact going), for this reader the author succeeded much more often than he failed. The result, and it is to his credit as an author, is that the strength of the book lies not in the portrayal of any of those forces, but in the fully-developed portraits he produces of the characters that must face them. Jeannot, his wife and the pioneers around them all come to life — as do the narrator’s parents and the generation around them. And given that the narrator has just returned to his birthplace when he tells the story, all of this is wrapped up in the future of a character who, at the age of 40, is about to start the next phase of his life in the community called Sawgamet. (I am guilty of reviewer gender bias in concentrating on the male characters — rest assured their female partners are every bit as important to the story and every bit as well-developed.)
I am not sure how well this novel will travel outside of Canada, although Kathleen Winter’s Annabel, which has similarities in both frontier setting and some themes, is travelling very well with its recently-announced Orange Prize short-listing and talk of possible Booker acknowledgement (yes, I am cheering for her on both). Perhaps instead of lamenting yet more novels with themes that have always been common in Canadian fiction, it is time to celebrate the way that debut authors are returning to them with even more impressive results.