The Alaskan wilderness provides a formidable backdrop for Foreman's detail-rich though meandering first novel. In Toehold, with a population of 200, an Arctic "bush village," a collection of surly characters have their quirks, but this is no quaint Northern Exposurehamlet. Subsisting on a diet of moose, caribou and the beer down at Sweet-ass Sue's Pingo Palace, the town's citizens see simply surviving the winter as a source of pride. Like many residents, fiery Mary Ellen "Mel" Madden, originally from Mudsuck, W.Va., came to Toehold with "just no place left to go." But thanks to Cody Rosewater, the town's taxidermist and "go-to" guy, Mel soon learns how to track, hunt and trap. She puts her new skills to work by hanging out her hunting guide shingle. But her first client, a smarmy Hollywood producer, may prove to be more dangerous than the golden grizzly they set out after. Plenty of shots get fired, and somewhere in the harsh landscape love starts to bloom. While the depiction of life in the Alaskan bush can be striking, the romance is less than stirring, and some sluggish prose and big chunks of character backstory slow things down. (Oct.)Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Toehold: A Novelby Stephen H. Foreman
The residents of Toehold, Alaska, are an odd collection of eccentric souls reveling in the fierceness of the land and determined to live on their own terms. All of them have stories, some ridiculous, some bordering on the Homeric. Summer Joe has a harem of wives and a weakness for Jewish social workers. Six-foot-three-inch Sweet-ass Sue runs the town's only bar. There's Buddy Barconi, an ex-New York fireman with a raunchy sense of humor matched perfectly by a total lack of propriety. And Mary Ellen Madden, known as Mel to her friends, a cash-strapped vagabond with gray-green eyes and a double-wide smile who's trying her luck as a hunting guide.
When her first customer appears, a ruthless Hollywood producer seeking the glory of the kill, Mel and her best friend, Cody Rosewater -- the son of a San Francisco flower child, and now Toehold's taxidermist -- can no longer ignore the tension that's been crackling between them for years.
Always in the background is the raw majesty of the northern wild: crazed moose bolt down Main Street, caribou are violently ambushed by wolves, and the eight-month-long winter night is illuminated by the northern lights.
Funny and romantic, with a cast of unforgettable characters, Toehold is at once a laugh-out-loud comedy, a quirky love story, and a sublime evocation of the beautiful, rugged wilderness of Alaska.
- Simon & Schuster
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Something new had been set loose across the land. The locals called it break-up. True, the river remained three feet thick with ice, in some places four, but in other spots the ice had definitely begun to move. The underwater currents now flowed swiftly, responding to the warmth of a Spring sun that appeared, finally, in the northern sky after months of arctic night.
Only a week ago the temperature had been fifty below, but Toehold, Alaska, knew that break-up was only days away. If you lived in Toehold and didn't have a calendar tacked to the wall of your cabin you wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the last long week of a grinding Winter and the first sneak peek of Spring. Most of the folks accepted the Winter months with grace and pride -- if you didn't want the weather, what the hell were you doing here? -- but people got grumpy when the sun didn't appear as expected. When it finally did come out even the geezers had smiles on their faces. Suddenly the snow glittered like a mirror ball on prom night. It made you want to dance. Arctic Spring also brought an end to the uncommon silence of that deeply frozen other world that called itself a river. Spring brought the screams, groans, and great cracking shots of ice as glomerations the size of industrial-strength refrigerators fractured, heaved up out of the river, and ground against each other with a sound like locomotives slamming on the brakes.
Each year the forest service hired people to walk the rivers and report back on the progress of the break-up. It was a cold and lonely way to spend the time, but there was an upside: it paid real cash money in a place where a wolverine's hide was considered a good week's work. This year the job went to Mary Ellen Madden, called Mel, and she didn't even have to apply for it. Old Fritz McFadden, a sourdough who had prospected, hunted, trapped, and connived for the better part of seventy years in the country, had monitored the river for the past ten, but Fritz had a boil on his ass the size of a jawbreaker and was also incommoded by a major dose of influenza. He couldn't walk three steps without the world starting to swirl, and the prospect of bouncing around on a snowmobile with a fester that size was inconceivable. So, when Mel stopped by to see if he needed anything, Fritz said he'd cut her a deal. He knew she could use the money. That was no big secret. Everybody in town knew she could use the money.
This was the deal: "You walk the river for me," Fritz said. "Tell me how it is, I'll radio the report to Fairbanks, and you can have the money."
"All of it?" she wanted to know.
"Half," he said.
"I do the work, you get the money?" she said.
"You do the work, we get the money," he answered. "Most people would jump at this opportunity, but I thought of you first."
"You're a first-rate human being," she said.
"Don't piss me off, or I will give it to someone else," Fritz said, emphasizing the word will as if he were a drill sergeant.
He was right. She did need the money, always needed the money. Mel and money were not normally on a first-name basis, which is how she found herself out on the ice in a blizzard that caught her completely off guard. It followed three days of above-freezing temperatures, baby-blanket-blue skies, and cloud cover like an eiderdown comforter. Icicles were dripping like Jack Frost's nose. The river ice was groaning nonstop.
Time to check it out, Mel thought. Strap on the snowshoes. This was a good day to be alive. Her parka was unzipped. She didn't need the heavy hood around her face. Lovely. Lovely. A flock of white-cheeked geese veered down below the clouds and followed the river loudly looking for open water. She climbed a rise overlooking the river to take in a great length of it before she went down and walked the shore. To look out over this country from on high was a gift. You could see forever. The limits of self- consciousness dissolved, and you were swept into the infinitude of it all. Each breath taken from the wind given back to the wind. Once you got down into it you would be lost in its vastness: eternity in each step taken.
Mel caught movement from the far shore of the river, a half mile or more away. A caribou was running through the deep drifts along the bank. It was remarkable how a four-hundred-pound animal could move so easily through such deep snow. George Nanachuk, patriarch of an Indian family that had hunted this area for centuries, explained one evening while she watched him skin one that the caribou has a wide hoof that acts like a suction cup to give him purchase on ice and snow and steep rocky terrain. A painting of a man on a cross didn't do it for her, but a hoof like a suction cup did.
About a hundred yards behind the big deer Mel spotted two more shapes -- no, three: wolves. They were loping along on a steady trajectory with the caribou, but instead of closing the distance they merely maintained it. They never got any closer, but they didn't fall back much, either. Mel knew that a caribou could outrun a wolf. In fact, it seemed to Mel that the wolves were tiring, losing interest. The one in the lead stopped running altogether and lay down in the snow, breathing hard. The other two did the same. The caribou continued on for a few yards, then it, too, stopped and looked back. The wolves remained where they were. When the caribou seemed reassured that they were no longer in pursuit it began moving again, hooked a left, and headed for the tree line, only now at a slower pace. At that moment, when it seemed at last to be safe, when it seemed that in another second it would be into the trees and lost from view, four more wolves burst from the forest directly in front of it and cut it off. It was an ambush, and the three wolves behind closed the distance to the caribou until there was no escape at all. They had outwitted the faster animal, and now they would take it down and devour it. Dodging sharp hooves and slashing antlers, the wolves circled the caribou, darting in and out, each time tearing away another hunk of flesh. They packed the snow and turned it red. One wolf, a black one, managed to lock onto the caribou's nose, its powerful jaws splintering those of the deer. Now free of the antlers, the black wolf hung on and used its leverage to yank the caribou off balance. The caribou's forelegs buckled, but it stayed up. Blood poured from the desperate animal's savaged flanks, but it kicked and slashed till its sinews hung in strands and its bones showed through the skin left on its legs. Finally, when those legs could no longer bear any weight, it collapsed into the snow, and the wolves swarmed over it like maggots. So much for the kindness of strangers.
So intent was Mel on watching this spectacle that her radar failed to sense a shift in the weather. She had forgotten what Esther Nanachuk, George's wife, had told her about how to tell weather in the mountains. "Just wait five minutes," the old woman said. "It'll change."
And so it had. The breeze became a wind; the skies darkened; a late-season blizzard caught Mel out in the open with so much whirling snow she could no longer tell one direction from another. She knew that if she could get to the base of the hill, she would find some shelter from the driving wind. But when she got down there she was shivering so much she mentally prepared to die. When, when would she ever get old enough to know better? Now she knew the answer: never. The only thought that gave her comfort was that she knew, from listening to people talk, that the death was quick and not unpleasant, a speedy deep freeze. Zap, you're ice and you're gone. But how the hell did they know, sitting comfortably inside next to the warm stove drinking homemade from a jar? You could believe anything. Mel began to shiver uncontrollably. Hypothermia was setting in. Her body shivered, trying like hell to warm itself up, but no way. It had to be seriously below zero now, and the temperature was dropping steadily.
When she first came into the country she figured what the hell was the difference between twenty below, forty below, seventy below? Cold was cold, right? Bundle up. But two weeks into her first Winter taught her a lesson: choose twenty over forty, forty over seventy. The differences were real. At twenty, saliva froze in the corners of your mouth. At forty, frostbite took seconds. At seventy, moose piss froze before it hit the ground.
Before she realized what she was doing, Mel dropped to her hands and knees and began digging in the snow like a dog. At the edge of her consciousness she heard Esther Nanachuk's voice telling a story about how her grandmother got caught in a blizzard in the old days. The old woman scooped out all the snow she could, then got into the hole and let the falling snow cover her up. She said it was so quiet and peaceful and warm that she fell asleep. She did not know how many days later it was that the snow stopped (she learned it had been three days), and she crawled out hungry but alive. There was a feast of thanksgiving when she showed up back in the village, though first she had to convince them she was not a ghost. She did this by puncturing the flesh of her thumb with a needle made of bone and holding her hand up high so everyone could see the blood form like a small, red pearl.
Mel lay on her side, her knees drawn up, her arms around her, like one of those Peruvian mummies she had seen in the Geographic. This could be worse, she thought, as her eyes shuttered down. Warmth wrapped itself around her like an expensive coat. Not so bad. If I die, she thought, will I die happy? Now's the time for answers, right? Let's start with a simple question: "Will I die happy?" She would, she thought, except for a few really annoying details:
"Did I leave the Mr. Coffee on?"
"Will anybody miss me?"
"Will whoever gets my truck know enough to pump the gas pedal real hard three times before turning on the ignition?"
"Would they scoop me up after the thaw or leave me for the birds?"
There was another thought, too, but that one she pushed back. That one Mel preferred to keep hidden. She hoped the moment of death held some kind of, well, some kind of what? Glow, maybe? Johnny Mathis singing, "It's wonderful, wonderful," from these great speakers she could never afford but always wanted for her truck? The sensation of golden French vanilla ice cream on the tongue? But all she felt was curious, and after a while, she wasn't even that anymore. What she knew was that the wind howled like spirits come to get her. Then the wind went silent, and she didn't hear or know anything at all.
At some point in the darkness, her eyes opened, not because Mel willed them to; they just did. She could claim no spectral visitations, no dreams, no answers. Her only vision was a lot of white, a surround of white, in fact, but really kind of cozy. Not one howl to be heard. Mel wondered if this was heaven. If I'm frozen stiff, she thought, what am I doing thinking? which she was. And, if I'm thinking, maybe I can wiggle my toes -- which she did -- and make a fist -- which she also did -- spit that annoying strand of loose hair out of my mouth . . . And then it was like a geyser punching skyward from the center of the Earth. She blew out from underneath that snow having no idea how long she'd been there but dead certain that she was alive. Trial by ice and snow: she had been tested; she had won.
Mel felt light as a leaf. She wondered, would the wind carry her away? But her feet, when she stamped them, told her she was on solid ground, and that was really what she wanted.
The day was quiet and lovely, and she could see clearly in all directions. She didn't feel like a ghost because she was ferociously hungry and had to pee. Then again, how would she know, having, to her knowledge, never been a ghost before? She was pretty sure, though, as she stretched herself out and the blood flowed back into each of her limbs, and she could still hear the river trying to disgorge itself of ice.
She wiped herself free of as much snow as she could and walked to the river, where she could see that the ice had pulled free of the bank, exposing a ribbon of water. It was happening. The river was in extreme break-up. A few more days of decent weather and the water would run free again. She watched as two plates of ice ground against each other until one slipped up and over with the sound of an ax blade being sharpened on a grindstone. It remained a solid slab almost perpendicular to the other. Behind it, one which she hadn't noticed 'til this one moved, was another, oddly oval in shape, and moving slowly but steadily forward as if it had legs. Mel figured it to be noon or close to it. The glare from the sun on the snow was now so bright that she pulled a pair of sunglasses from her parka pocket to protect against snow blindness. Only once had Mel made the mistake of not using the sunglasses. The remorseless light had hammered her eyes, and she'd spent the next seven days feeling as if a file were being rasped across her eyeballs. She put on the glasses and watched the unusual slab of ice move toward the bank maybe twenty yards down from her.
This wasn't right. Ice didn't move like that. Maybe it did where dead people went, but she thought she had already answered that question. The oval slab rose up out of the river at a steady pace, totally encased in large plates of ice. It was like a colossus from ancient Egypt rising ponderously but implacably from its throne to its feet. It seemed to be walking. It was walking! This colossus covered with ice. The sun made this apparition shine so brightly that, even with her sunglasses, Mel had to keep looking away, and every time she looked back, the thing was closer to shore. It was alive! She saw what had to be legs encased in ice, big as trash cans, and in that instant she knew: a massive grizzly bear looking even more fearsome than it no doubt was. It must have spent the blizzard out on the ice of the river, only a few feet away from her, and now it had awakened at the same time she had, this sleeping giant, covered every inch with slabs and plates of ice. If it saw Mel it took no notice. She watched spellbound as this astonishing creature followed the river until it disappeared into a patch of frozen willows along the bank.
Copyright © 2007 by Stephen H. Foreman
Meet the Author
Stephen H. Foreman received a BA from Morgan State University and an MFA from the Yale School of Drama, and taught writing at various universities before moving to California to work as a screenwriter and director. Having trekked across the Alaskan wilderness, bushwhacked through tropical rain forests, and hunted for gold mines in Arizona, he now makes his home in the Catskill Mountains, with his wife and two children.
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