Touch is one of those infrequent yet precious novels that bridge the world of the known and the unknown. In Sawgamet, a mining town turned logging village after the gold rush, sixteen-year-old Jeannot Boucher breaks ground in hopes of making his fortune with only his dog, Flaireur, for company. Flaireur stops to rest on a particular spot in the clearing, refusing to move - or bark. Here Jeannot builds a small shelter as winter closes in. The pair is in danger of starvation until Flaireur breaks his silence, singing into the chill air a bounty of beating wings and pecking beaks, the bloody, feathered carnage that delivers sustenance and reveals the demands of such an existence: “I had seen enough to know that ghosts and monsters lived in the woods.”
Thirty years later, Stephen holds vigil at his dying mother’s bedside, recalling his life, the joys and tragedies of three generations. When Stephen is ten, his sister, Marie, falls through the ice, their father, Pierre, plunging in to save her. Both remain trapped, visible to the boy and his mother, father and daughter’s fingers nearly touching in a striking tableau. Stephen has learned that “the woods and river claim their own in the end.” Night after quiet night, time slips away, Stephen once more a grieving boy, his grandfather returning too late, announcing, “I’ve come back for your grandmother. I’ve come back to raise the dead.”
Such is the nature of this story, a tale of “mythological realism” in which where hardworking people endure a long winter buried beneath the snow without communication with others, where survival demands extreme measures (“With a single bite he called down a vengeance upon himself”), where roam the trickster, the loupgarou, or the qallupilluit (sea witch) in search of souls, where Jeannot and Martine Boucher discover love, walking hand in hand through a magical forest following a golden caribou as winter steals near to claim them. For all the loss of Stephen’s young life, there is equal measure of love and family - three generations of stories to fill the heart and overwhelm the imagination with what exists beyond the realm of man’s limitations.
The images are extraordinary: a father and daughter trapped beneath a shelf of ice; Jeannot and Flaireur slaughtering screeching birds in the confines of a tiny shelter; a husband and wife walking naked through the forest; a qallupilluit seeking Jeannot in the woods: “There are still parts of the forest that remain secret… places where the mountains loom… where shape shifters fly past us in the dark.”
Waiting for his mother to die, his young daughters sleeping peacefully and his wife warming their bed, Stephen is the conduit of the author’s magical prose, his father and grandfather all enchanted by the “crippling beauty of winter,” each cognizant that the woods would “reclaim what is rightfully theirs,” men bound by love, loss and the knowledge that “memories are another way to raise the dead.” Zentner fulfills all his promises in this novel, a perfect melding of gods and monsters, men brave enough to carve a niche into a forbidding landscape, a world where boundaries fade with the sun, where existence hovers on the edge of time.