As I discussed in an earlier post, I am currently working on a project about Algonquian peoples and religion in the Canadian north. In Australia, Canada and the United States the media generally depicts First Nations with reference to a distant past, while little attention is given to questions of colonialism and postcolonialism. As a result, indigenous peoples are often made invisible in Global and International Studies. People typically think of peoples such as the Kurds when they refer to stateless nations, but less attention is given to indigenous nations. With the “Idle No More” protests sweeping Canada, and the deplorable conditions in Attawapiskat gaining national attention, these issues have now gained global media coverage.
One of my favorite ways to explore another world is through literature, so I want to review Eden Robinson’s work, Monkey Beach. The story centers on a main character, Lisa Marie Hill, who is a Haisla woman who lives on the Northwest coast of British Columbia. As the book opens we learn that Lisa Marie has recently lost her brother Jimmy, who disappeared while on a fishing trip. Most of the book is told as a series of flashbacks, which serve to place Jimmy’s death into a larger context. This process culminates in the book’s climax, when the true cause of Jimmy’s disappearance is revealed.
Throughout the novel, the central theme is the disastrous legacy of colonialism upon the Haisla nation. Robison shows the multi-generational trauma inflicted by the residential schools, This is a common theme in First Nations literature, such as Thomson Highway’s novel Kiss of the Fur Queen. Isolated from the families and heritage, an earlier generation underwent sexual and psychological abuse, which led to a legacy of trauma and drug abuse. In the protagonist’s family, her Uncle Mick was abused by a priest, which caused years of suffering. Another key character is similarly scarred, although the full implications of this history do not reveal themselves at first.
This topic is a difficult one, and in the hands of a less skill-full novelist it might have come across as heavy-handed. But Robinson weaves this history into the main narrative with great skill, so that only afterwards does the reader sometimes understand what is implied by references to the past. Her character also faces sexist and racist violence, of the kind that permitted so many native women to disappear on Canada’s Highway of Tears, which I discussed in another blog post on podcasts. Tragically, there are now allegations that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police were themselves complicit in sexual abuse and violence in this area. While the number of disappeared and murdered is far lower on Highway 16 in Canada than in Ciudad Juarez in Mexico, in both cases femicides reflected official indifference. Eden Robinson’s novel explains the experiences and attitudes that made women vulnerable in these communities.
The book itself takes its name from a beach associated with the Sasquatch in her community. The Sasquatch is the Canadian version of the American Bigfoot, a figure that perhaps reflects echoes of European beliefs about the wildman. The book is often described as a gothic novel (see Jennifer Andrew’s chapter in Sugars and Turcotte, Unsettled Remains: Canadian Literature and the Postcolonial Gothic). But in this case the Sasquatch does not so much invoke terror, as the redemptive power of wilderness. As others have noted, Robinson turns the Canadian gothic tradition on its head by making the wilderness a place of freedom and redemption. When her brother Jimmy binges on drugs and alcohol, Lisa kidnaps him and takes him to a remote island. There they reconnect and he breaks out of his stupor. When they encounter the Sasquatch, she is frightened but it is also something marvelous. The true horror in the novel is what happens to the character in East Vancouver. It is the city that is the true nightmare.
Most other supernatural beings in this novel are less wondrous than the Sasquatch. Indeed, Lisa is haunted, both metaphorically by the overwhelming loss of her loved ones, and literally, for she can see their ghosts. There is also a strange character who serves as a forerunner to warn of impending death. And he appears often. All told, the book depicts a world in with the line between reality and the dead has rubbed so thin that it is easy to become emotionally lost.
This is an unusual work, a gothic tale of family tragedy set on the Northwest coast of BC. The recurring theme of cross-generational trauma makes it a dark work. But I could not put the book down because of the richly developed characters, which reminded me at times of Howard Norman’s novels, another favorite author. This work would be a great choice for a class that addressed women’s issues or the indigenous experience, or for classes in Canadian Studies.