A coming-of-age story invites us to step out of the comfortable.
ON THE OPENING PAGE of Eden Robinson’s new novel Son of a Trickster (Knopf, February 2017), we learn that Jared is different. As a small child, his maternal grandmother called him Wee’git—“Trickster”—and told him: “You still smell like lightning.” While she’d treat his cousins to fudge and caramel apples, for his birthday she gave Jared a jar of blood and animals’ teeth.
Like the reader, Jared has a lot of learning to do. For in this book, the seemingly normal and the magical inhabit the same space. Telling them apart can be, well, tricky. But that seems to be part of Robinson’s point, as she explores simultaneity and the opportunities that come when you have to face it.
The story takes place in Kitimat, 10 kilometres north of Kitimaat Village, where Robinson spent her own youth. It follows Jared, a 16-year-old living in his mother’s basement, who has to navigate shifting mysteries within and without as the world he thought he knew turns into something he doesn’t know at all.
Dealing with more than just the typical teenage escapades with booze, drugs, sex, and fickle social circles, Jared’s world of domestic dysfunction teeters between extremes of tenderness and violence. This young man, who says things like “good gravy” and cries over his dying dog, has to define himself. He must choose how to be in the face of his addicted and gun-toting mother’s mantra, which is part warning and part command: “The world is hard. You have to be harder.”
But how can you know how to be when you aren’t sure who you are? How do you untangle all of what makes you who you are in the first place? How do you determine what is real and what isn’t? Not small questions for someone who had been hoping he could finish grade ten “before all this shit blew up.” Yet the coming apart is where Robinson shows us Jared’s learning happens, and she seems to take delight in blowing up the limitations of his knowledge and perspective. In a description of magic early in the novel, she reminds us that “our reality is shaped by our limitations.”
“When I left Kitimaat,” she tells me by phone, “I assumed everyone knew who the Haisla were, that we make the best [oolichan] grease. I assumed everyone knew what grease was! Across North America, we all have the same blind spots. We assume our reality is the only reality. But there’s more than one reality.”
A member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations, Robinson once again makes her home in Kitamaat Village, population 700, on BC’s central coast. Growing up in a community rooted in oral tradition meant everyone told stories, and many of the stories Robinson heard around the family table were about the transforming trickster Wee’git.
Oral storytelling wasn’t her forte, though. “I wasn’t very good at it,” she laughs. “I tend to wander.” Instead, in grade 11 Robinson started writing, a medium that could encompass her containment-resistant thinking. “Originally, I wanted to be an astronaut,” she says, “but then I found out NASA had a height requirement.” So, science geek that she was, she started writing short science fiction and, from there, branched out to the dark stories of Traplines (winner of the UK’s Winifred Holtby prize); the downtown Vancouver Eastside-based Blood Sports; and her critically-acclaimed novel Monkey Beach (shortlisted for the Giller prize and a Governor General’s Literary Award, and winner of the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize). In 2016 she was awarded the Writers’ Trust Engel Findley Award, honouring a mid-career body of work making a significant contribution to Canadian literature.
It’s not surprising that Robinson began exploring her talent as a teen. In both Monkey Beach and Son of a Trickster, young adulthood is a particularly powerful time, where that universally awkward experience of self-discovery includes awakening to, and shaking hands with, unusual gifts. While most teens won’t discover that their parent is a supernatural being or start seeing the dead, Jared’s story of painfully growing into the truth is important for young people. And its lesson of listening to and learning to accept what sets you apart is good for all of us.
Robinson is also interested in exploring what makes us similar. In a series of interstitial moments stepping out of the ground-level, expletive-laden action, a narrative voice—perhaps the aeons-old Wee’git—shares more meditative thoughts about the Earth’s past and present history.
“Every living creature, every drop of water and every somber mountain is the by-blow of some bloated, dying star.” We’re told that the difference between one human and another “is probably one DNA base pair in every thousand” and that we are “transitory vessels built from recycled carbon like every other living thing on this planet. Bits and parts of you have probably been a cricket or a dinosaur or a single blade of grass on the prairies.” In these moments, Robinson’s love of science peeks through and shows us a way of seeing another kind of magic, in our world and in ourselves.
One of the strengths of this kind of magic realism is that it forces us to look with new eyes at the so-called “real world” we already inhabit. For instance, when Jared sees a monster underneath an old woman’s skin, it doesn’t really match the submerged monstrousness of his mother’s ex-boyfriend, who took perverse pleasure in a scene of torture I won’t describe here. Robinson shows us that the seemingly “normal” can be just as bizarre—in both beautiful and horrific ways—as anything the supernatural world can offer.
“The Earth has had so many purges,” Robinson says. “If we get purged, it won’t be a big deal—well, to the Earth, I mean,” she notes, laughing. But she’s not laughing when she adds: “Now we’re doing it to ourselves.” Living so close to Kitimat, the threat of the Northern Gateway pipeline provided what she calls “a non-stop drumbeat of activism” that slowed down her writing of this story, which began in 2008 and is the first book of a trilogy.
Not surprisingly, political and environmental themes lurk on the edges of Jared’s teenage maelstrom. “When I was young,” she explains, “there was always a moral we had to pull away from the books we read. I tend to go in the opposite direction. The goal is not to tell you what to think. I just introduce the characters, and let people come to their own conclusions.”
Despite having created characters that literally and figuratively push the limits of humanity, Robinson, hilarious and ultimately undampened by cynicism, also reveals the unexpected beauty of different kinds of relationships, and of expanded vision. Hers is an invitation to step out of the comfortable and throw off the limitations that shape a restricted reality. In that sense, Son of a Trickster is a little like a run through a dense forest. You’ll be scratched up, a little bruised, maybe scared—but you’ll also be exhilarated and newly attuned to what’s different around and within you, things you otherwise might have never seen, never understood, and never valued.
Writer/editor Amy Reiswig believes that indeed there are more things in heaven and on Earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy.
On YouTube, Miriam Toews interviews Eden Robinson: