October is darkening Ohio. The leaves are turning colors and wind and rain spread them across the lawns and street. It’s the time of year some people like to read darker books, and if you’re one of them, have I got a book for you.
Eleanor brought home Alexi Zentner’s Touch from a “Writers after Grinnell” event and gave it to me to read, so I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was hooked by the first chapter, which is the story of what happens to narrator Stephen Boucher’s father and sister, told as he returns to the town of Sawgamet to see his dying mother. Sawgamet was founded by Stephen’s grandfather Jeannot, and as the novel continues, it unfolds the stories of the lives of Stephens’ family and the inhabitants of this isolated small town deep in the frozen wastes of what seems to be British Columbia but is also the manifestation of its early settlers’ dreams and fears. Mythical Realism, Zentner calls this style, and it draws on some of the same myths and legends as Supernatural did in its early seasons—wendigo, shape-shifter, werewolf.
Often the spooky part frames the stories:
“In later years, when he told the story to Pearl and other men, and they told it to each other and passed it around the way that men do, some men argued that Jeannot had simply been young and scared, or that he had been dreaming. That in the moonlight and his tiredness he had mistaken a bear or another animal for some perversion. Other men, particularly men who had spent more time in the woods or who had dealings with Indians, men who understood that there were things that they had yet to see, believed him. It was a wehtiko—a man turned into a monster as punishment for cannibalism—come to eat the flesh from my grandfather’s bones. No, it was a shape-shifter, it was the loup-garou, the mahaha, it was an adlet, come to drink his blood.
When my grandfather told me the story, however, he insisted it was none of those things. The creature, he said, was a qallupilluit, a sea witch, who felt the greed for gold running through Jeannot’s body and had come to claim him.”
The stories about Jeannot, Stephen’s grandfather, and his wife Martine tie the other stories together, starting with the one about how Jeannot discovered gold in Sawgamet at the age of 18 and then spent the long winter in a house he built himself with only his dog for company. The story of the winter they got snowed in together with only Jeannot’s dog and another starving traveler for company, with Martine pregnant, includes the story of the tunnel they built from the mill where they were sheltering to the firewood stacked beside the burned-down cabin where they used to live:
“Though he was afraid it might collapse, he carved the tunnel out big enough so that he could stand in it….One of the days, Martine took some of the extra water, wet down a rag, and glazed down the walls of the tunnel between the cabin and the mill. It was pitch-black because of the snow above, but she pulled Jeannot in with her, carrying a lantern, just so that he could see the gleaming in the ice. The reflection made it seem like they were walking through the stars.”
While telling this story, Stephen, whose mother is still in the act of dying, says “I think that the tunnel that my grandmother washed down with water, ice smooth enough to make it seem like they were among the stars themselves, is close to heaven.”
Jeannot shows his son and another child how to defeat a mahaha, saying “they pan out on the dumb side. They’re a kind of snow demon. They tickle you until all your breath is gone. Leave you dead, but with a smile.” He comes back to Sawgamet “to raise the dead,” he says. Stephen comments that he does not “have the faith, or the strength, to raise the dead—but I have come to believe what my mother began to believe soon after my father and Marie went through the ice on the river: memories are another way to raise the dead.”
These stories can raise the fictional dead, the monsters of Canadian myths, the hopes of a reader who wants to see someone in Stephen’s family win through the dangers of the northern wilderness, and possibly the hairs on the back of your neck.