On Canada’s North West Coast, venturing off the beaten path lands you in the world of Sasquatch, spirit bears, and a myriad of other mystic beings who draw the unwary into a spiritual realm filled with stories and myths as old as time. In Son of a Trickster, First Nations writer Eden Robinson not only draws on that mystic world, but ventures boldly into it with her gritty and stunningly blunt coming of age tale of Jared and his adventures (or misadventures) growing up in the villages and towns of the Canada’s remote corner.
Life in the communities dotting Canada’s outer coast is profoundly shaped by geography, climate and the ancient stories that echo and resonate across the sands of time. Accompanying Jared and his circle as the story unfolds offers a glimpse into a Harry Potter like world where myth and magic mingle with real life with startling and surprising results.
Noting repeatedly that “Life is hard. You have to be harder” Robinson is unflinching in her portrayal of life for a First Nations youth, and the many challenges they face, even without the interventions of mythic entities. In this era of Reconciliation, voices from our First Nations become vital in our understanding of the complexities we face seeking a just tomorrow, with voices like Robinson leading the way.
Good Story that one ...
Remember back in high school when your English teacher taught you the various pieces that comprise the development of the plot? Well, it would seem that Eden Robinson either skipped that class, or chose to overlook such stuffy formality in her book Son of a Trickster, opting instead to simply tell a good story as it unfolds. Using a narrative stream not unlike Joyce’s Ulysses, Robinson follows Jared as he moves through his world and learns more about it, and himself.
In this coming of age tale of First Nations youth, Jared is a Hero’s Journey which adds layer after layer to the awakening of both the reader and the characters, to the deep mystical connections of his NorthWest coastal world. Rather than shying away from the reality of abuse, drugs and alcohol, violence and the many challenges facing First Nations’ youth, Robinson simply tells Jared’s unpolished story of his connectedness to Wee’git, the Trickster, while weaving in a magical subplot that slowly reveals the supernatural reality Jared is struggling to comprehend and accept as he becomes more and more aware of his connection to a mystical spirit realm.
There is no culminating climax in this book, but instead, like a good First Nations story, the joy is in the details. As the reader closes the book, they experience the words of another First Nations’ writer Thomas King, who once told a story consisting entirely of the repeated revelation: “A good story that one” with little else offered by way of plot development. Fortunately, Robinson tells the good story of a pantheon of human, mystic and supernatural beings interacting with one another in an engaging narrative that tantalizes the reader with a magical world that permeates and intersects our own if we dare to open ourselves to its reality.
“The world is hard. You have to be harder.” is the advice offered to Jared, the hero in Eden Robinson’s work Son of a Trickster by his mother repeatedly throughout the narrative. It is solid advice that serves the young man well as he struggles on his journey of growing self awareness and discovery of who he really is, and that the world around him is not as it first seems.
The book’s protagonist, Jared is neither a particularly likable character, but nor is he an unlikable character either. He is refreshingly human, making typical missteps and foibles as he navigates the angst riddled teenaged world filled with all the perils of alcohol, drugs, abuse, sexuality, relationships and responsibility.
If Jared possesses a fatal flaw, it is a naïveté in comprehending his place where the mystical and the physical intersect. His lineage from Wee’git, one of the shadowy minor characters, opens the door to spiritual happenings that could easily be dismissed as hallucination until the reader comes to see the Harry Potter-esque world of muggles and magic unfolding in Jared’s life.
Jared’s awakening to what really lies around him, is the strength of his character, and the heart of his journey through the narrative, and it is perhaps the source of his redemption. One cannot dislike a character caught up in happenings far beyond his control, yet central to his being. Fortunately, Jared’s hardening doesn’t change the deep caring that is an important part of who he is.
“Mass extinction sucks.” Three simple words offered by a humble trilobite as it and the hundreds of millions of years of existence of its kind simple comes to an abrupt end in a side story within Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson. Like the turtle offered by John Steinbeck in his epic Grapes of Wrath as a metaphor for the struggles of the Joad family, the trilobite and its musings about life lay the foundation for the existential theme that undergirds Robinson’s narrative.
Mass extinction sucks resonates with the First Nations’ experiences that are integral to the narrative of Jared’s life. The counsel of the trilobites suddenly being snuffed out after 300 million years looms large over the Jared and his growing self-awareness. Life is fragile and fraught with challenges, and Jared becomes more and more aware of that fragility and the existential threat that woven into his world.
Using dark humour that is common with First Nations’ folk who have learned that life can indeed be hard, Robinson walks Jared from conflict and threats posed by both humans and mythic beings to a place of peace where he accepts the reality of his unfolding self-understanding. Along the way Jared embraces his existence as an interface with the mythic world while acknowledging that life can indeed be harsh, but his tenacity offers the reader a page turning hopefulness.
Jared’s world can be dark and foreboding at times, and he easily could give into the dark forces around him, but instead of simply accepting extinction, he chooses instead to unflinchingly embrace life and all that it offers. His tenacity and refusal to surrender challenges the reader to understand the broader theme of why, after centuries of colonialization our First Nations people still proudly stand and still live.
As Murray Sinclair retires from the Senate, and the Parliament welcomes Cree poet and residential school survivor, Louise Bernice Halfe — Sky Dancer — as Poet Laureate, awareness of our National journey of reconciliation with our First Peoples is once again front and centre. With pandemic restrictions and vaccinations presenting serious life threatening challenges in the First Nation communities scattered across our land, hearing voices from those communities and understanding the distinctive worldviews they embody is crucial for continued healing from our colonial past.
Eden Robinson doesn’t place the journey of reconciliation front and centre in her narrative, but it lies, as a foundational element, under the story of Jared and those around him. The struggle for reconciliation colours and influences the story as we hear the voices from the margins that Robinson amplifies through her story telling.
In the midst of the pandemic, as the reader struggles with restrictions and limitations, it is helpful to hear a tale of perseverance from a different, yet connected, perspective. First Nations communities bridge our modern world with a deep connectedness to an eternal spiritual realm where creatures and beings move back and forth between worlds particularly in times of struggle. This distinctive voice of our First Nations neighbours reminds us that no matter what comes at us, survival is a gift of tenacity and strength.
Jared shows us that with patience, inner strength and care, one can survive and even prosper under even the most adverse of circumstances, and this is a lesson of reconciliation we would do well to consider and live.
The best I can offer is simply this: Read This Book!
Over the four years I lived with the Nuxalkmc First Nation on the west coast of Canada, I had countless conversations that danced between our world and the mythic spirit realm that hovers just beyond our vision and senses. In Son of a Trickster, Eden Robinson, herself from the First Nations bordering Bella Coola to the North and to the west, explores the stories that have human beings interacting with mythic beings that have lurked in the shadowy coastal rain forests since the beginning of time.
Stepping off the marked trail in the Coastal rainforest of BC, can quickly take you to a disorienting and unfamiliar place filled with sights and sound that can both comfort and frighten. Jared’s adventures in Robinson’s tale, is just such an excursion. The reader is challenged to move from the comfort of their recliner and explore the shadowy world where spirits and humans interact, and to listen to a voice that is unlike our own.
Rather than offering a melancholy fairy tale with a happy ending, Robinson draws from a pantheon of characters, both human and spiritual, who challenge the reader to embrace life in its infinite fullness, and to see the universal experiences with struggles in life as an opportunity to express our care and to deepen our learnings. There is a familiarity and comfort for me personally when I read Robinson’s narrative. I am almost immediately taken back to kitchen tables throughout the remote coastal community where over countless cups of strong black tea cut with sugar and canned milk, I heard stories of Trickster and his associates who live just beyond our vision.
Robinson invites the reader to explore the world of the West Coast through the eyes of people who have called it home since the beginning of time. Stepping away from a rational, scientific mindset, the reader can plunge into a great story of a world where mythic beings play and dream like visions reveal hidden truths, and all of it happens with a comfort, familiarity and humour that is distinctly Canadian, and distinctly First Nations.
Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. Robinson is a capable storyteller who explores the fullness of life with the blunt humour Canada’s First Nations are known for, and she does it in an unapologetic and engaging way. This book will take you on a journey beyond the familiar into a world that is as far away as the wind blowing on your cheek.
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