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Book Review: Toehold

Simon & Schuster, 2007, $13
  • Simon & Schuster, 2007, $13
Toehold, Alaska, might not be for everyone. But there are things—some tangible and some not—in a place like Toehold that can’t be found anywhere else. And the people who choose to call Toehold home—well, you’re not going to find the likes of them just anywhere either.

Stephen Foreman’s novel is a hilarious and moving portrait of lives unfolding in the ferocity of the Far North, a place where the writer (now based right here in the Catskills) has spent enough time outdoors to create a vividly evocative picture of a landscape as stunning as it is unforgiving. Moose, caribou, wolves, and grizzlies are near neighbors to his eclectic collection of human wildlife.

Central to the drama are Mary Ellen “Mel” Madden, a hardcore survivor with a warm and winning way about her, and Cody Rosewater, a Haight-Ashbury baby who’s found his niche as a taxidermist in Toehold. As the story begins, the attraction between them has yet to blossom into anything beyond a stoned and celebratory one-night stand. A talented hunter, Cody has taught Mel how to stalk and track big game, along with a thousand other skills needed in Alaska. Mel’s a quick study.

Surrounding these two are a collection of those who’ve found their foothold in Toehold, including a former New York fireman with a huge attitude, an unrepentant bigamist recently released from prison, a six-foot-four-inch barkeep named Sweet Ass Sue, and Dwayne the bush pilot. We glimpse enough to comprehend what has led them to this place, where people are—if nothing else—thoroughly stuck with one another. Flaws and idiosyncrasies are generously endured, but little, if anything, can stay hidden in a town like this. One life impacts another like pool balls on a table.

And when Mel, who most old-timers had assumed would never make it as a single woman in the Northland, decides to bill herself as a hunting guide and actually gets a client, things start to pop.

“How the hell are you going to turn that trailer into the Golden Bear Lodge?,” Cody wanted to know. “With a fuckin’ porch? That’s like puttin’ a bow tie on a pig.” But Mel is, at least outwardly, sure of herself. Her first client is Ray, a Hollywood producer of questionable scruples who fancies himself quite the dude, and his arrival and stay in Toehold are hugely comic. One hint: You’ll never forget the scene where Sweet Ass Sue takes off her top.

The wilderness is unpredictable, and although Mel does indeed know where to find an imperial, extra-large grizzly, things do not go as expected. They seldom do in Toehold, where the only constant is the seasons, 26 weeks each of Winter and Summer that are almost like entirely different existences and fully deserve to be proper nouns.

Mel has a deeper reason for needing to score some fast cash: She’s faced with parenting the daughter she hasn’t seen in many years, a prospect that brings out the terror and the toughness within her by turns, and kicks the unresolved romantic tension between herself and Cody up to a whole other level. Where does it all go from there? Let Stephen Foreman be your guide on a trail well worth visiting.

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