Toehold, by Stephen H. Foreman
Simon Schuster Paperbacks
$15.50, 259 pgs.
Nestled in at home, curled up with a book and a mug of coffee as the wind and snow whip around outside — it’s always been one of my favourite ways to spend a chilly winter evening.
It was on one such night that I decided to crack the spine of an odd little novel by Stephen H. Foreman, an author who has taught literature and drama, travelled through the tundra and rainforests, and hunted for gold mines before settling down to live in the Catskill Mountains.
Now, I know you should never judge a book by its cover, but who can blame me for being intrigued – emblazoned on the front of Toehold is a stuffed moose head wearing a colourful knit scarf. This had to be good, or at the very least entertaining.
Set in the small Alaskan town of Toehold, population 200, reading this book might not have been the best way to escape from the frigid imagery of winter.
Foreman leads readers through the day-to-day workings of this very isolated northern community, describing the brilliance of the great outdoors in breathtaking detail with an undercurrent of awe and respect for Mother Nature.
“Fall is like a big old dog you’ve had for a million years. Every day you look forward to seeing him, and every day you feel the pull of his passing. Joy and sadness; equal measures. He is still robust with a shiny coat thickened for Winter, but his eyes have become cloudy, and now he groans when he lies down.”
But it is the eccentric and lively cast of characters who choose to make Toehold their home that really make the town, and Foreman’s story, come alive.
From the vulnerable, but fiercely independent drifter Mary Ellen “Mel” Madden, to Cody Rosewater, the new-agey taxidermist from San Francisco, the town’s occupants are quirky to say the least.
While the dialogue can be a bit over the top at times, riddled with cheesy slang and clichés, the interactions between characters are heartfelt and often amusing. Though I’m still a bit unsure as to why some characters speak like they’re in an old Western film.
While all of the characters seem to love the tiny town they’ve chosen to settle down in, each struggles to cope with Toehold’s long and arduous winters.
“Toehold dug out of Winter and sloshed into Spring. The residents celebrated by sobering up. Life in the bush was defined by the seasons, and the seasons, particularly Winter, were defined by the consumption of alcohol, legal as well as homebrew. You had your solemn drunks, your sorry drunks, drunks who liked to party and drunks who drank alone, mean drunks, happy drunks, dumb drunks who thought their bonehead ideas were gifts to civilization, and crying drunks. Those were the ones you wished stayed home.”
But Foreman’s book isn’t just about poking fun at Northern small town living.
As the stories of central characters unfold throughout the novel, the reader is able to delve into their pasts to reveal trauma, sadness and triumph, and gain a better understanding of each of their personalities, and what has led each of them to this isolated, oddball town.
A few of these troubled souls eventually knit together to form a peculiar wilderness romance, and are challenged to face some ghosts from their past.
While Toehold isn’t exactly one to add to the Western canon, it’s sure to offer a few laughs and is a good book to check out on a chilly, lazy night.