MONKEY BEACH By Eden Robinson Knopf Canada, 374 pages, $29.95
Eden Robinson was born and raised on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat reserve in northern British Columbia, and made her publishing debut in 1996 with Traplines, a collection of fiercely original stories about teenagers in crisis. She is Canada's first Haisla writer, a distinction that no doubt brings with it a weight of expectations. But in Traplines,Robinson wisely established her own voice and vision -- and a method that I'd describe as Northern Gothic. Monkey Beach, her first novel, is more conventional. It's a wide-lens photograph of Kitamaat village, an effort to capture a faithful likeness of a community in the shock of accelerated change.
Monkey Beach is based on events recounted in one of the stories in Traplines. In that story ( Queen of the North), 16-year-old Karaoke prepares to send the uncle who made her pregnant grisly notification of her abortion in a ziplock bag. Karaoke's boyfriend, Jimmy, finds this package, and the last shot in the story is an ominous one of Jimmy and the uncle boarding a fishing boat together. As Monkey Beach opens, Jimmy's sister Lisa has just learned that the fishing boat belonging to Karaoke's uncle has disappeared, with Jimmy aboard. Through Lisa's memories while she waits for news, Robinson creates an intimate portrait of a family and a community.
Lisa's and Jimmy's family is the first intact, functional family in Eden Robinson's fiction. Jimmy is an aspiring Olympic swimmer, and the parents are almost middle-class caricatures. (When a tidal wave threatens the village, what they think of first are their golf clubs and Royal Doulton china.) As a result, many of Lisa's early memories are standard kid stuff involving bicycles, bullies and sex-ed class. It's a big challenge for a writer to create interest in material like this, and the challenge here is compounded by the structure of Monkey Beach:Having drawn us into the crisis of Jimmy 's disappearance, Robinson asks us to buy into the premise of Lisa sitting on the porch, chronologically reconstructing her childhood.
As the wider context of Kitamaat village is filled in, though, Lisa's memories begin to gel into a compelling story. Lisa is a scrapper by temperament. She's too outspoken to fit in with girls, and ends up hanging out with a gang of boys. She adores her uncle Mitch, a former activist with the radical American Indian Movement, and her grandmother, Ma-ma-oo, who teaches her Haisla vocabulary at the rate of a word a day. Ma-ma-oo scolds Lisa about the way the community trivializes tobacco. "Tobacco was sacred, long time ago. The smoke, it lifted prayers to the gods. These days, it's nothing. It's like candy, hey?" Perhaps not. When things fall apart for Lisa around puberty, cigarettes are her constant and only solace.
The past offers Lisa spiritual sustenance, but also a legacy of loss and pain. Living on the edge of the wilderness and in the flicker of three cultures (Haisla, Heiltsuk and European), she is vulnerable to loose spirits from all quarters: sasquatches, talking crows, ghosts, mischievous ouija, hallucinations, shape-shifters and a little red-haired man with bells on his shirt, whose appearances presage disaster. She's tormented by her own ambivalence to these visitations, longing for a link to the spirits of people she loved, and terrified that she is being pulled toward death. When, halfway through the novel, Lisa takes off in a power boat toward the site of Jimmy's disappearance, she is heading for a confrontation with the spirits. Robinson uses this journey to merge the two levels of the story, and to set up a deeply satisfying conclusion.
Robinson has an artist's eye, and delicately evokes the astonishing natural beauty of the Kitamaat region. The coast and mountains are not merely the setting for Monkey Beach; they are themselves the Haisla-Heiltsuk heritage, and also speak of sustenance and loss. Robinson offers a primer on picking and eating raw cockles, gathering salmonberry shoots in the spring, reading scat to discover where a bear is feeding, making and cooking with oolichan grease. And she compares what is to what was: "When I dreamed, I could see things in double exposure -- the real world, and beyond it, the same world but whole, with no clear-cuts, no pollution, no boats, no cars, no planes . . . the beaches were white with herring eggs."
Meanwhile, local legends about the sasquatch are being reshaped by action flicks. Ma-ma-oo is addicted to Dynasty. Her ritual gift to the spirit of her husband is a bottle of Johnny Walker and a Twinkie. The young people party with coke or hash to avoid the hassle of fake ID at the liquor store. Jokes about residential schools ("How many priests does it take to screw in a light bulb?") make the rounds.
Lisa simply tells a story without commenting on its social implications. But behind Lisa's neutral voice is an authorial presence, weaving Haisla and Heiltsuk lore into the fabric of the novel gracefully, but with the quiet determination of an archivist cataloguing a disappearing way of life. Joan Thomas is a contributing reviewer, and editor (with Heidi Harms) of Turn of the Story: Canadian Short Fiction on the Eve of the Millennium .