Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson.
Monkey Beach, by Eden Robinson. Toronto : Knopf Canada : Distributed by Random House of Canada, 2000.
An evocative novel by an Indigenous Canadian woman about growing up and making sense of life and tragedy along the Pacific coastal waters.
Eden Robinson was born among the Haisla people in Kitamaat Village, on waterways of central British Columbia. As an adult, she has returned there to write and for the setting of Monkey Beach. The first Haisla to become a well-regarded novelist, she blends Haisla beliefs and traditions with contemporary problems in this book.
The central figure in Monkey Beach is Lisa, a young adult woman living in Kitamaat Village. As the book opens, her younger brother and the fishing boat on which he was working have gone missing. Waiting for news about him, Lisa sinks into memory of their childhood, taking readers inside her extended family and community. She remembers individuals who have shaped her and grieves again about those who have died. Considering her own adolescence, she tries to understand her own and other’s actions. Restless with waiting, Lisa takes the family boat out on the nearby waterways to Monkey Beach, a place whose specialness she has shared with both her brother and her grandmother. But she finds danger there.
Monkey Beach immerses readers in a world which is both old and new. The people of Kitamaat Village continue traditional practices at the same time they try to cope with modern problems. Lisa’s family eats traditional foods and travel deeply into the waters and mountains on fishing expeditions. Robinson notes the negative impact of whites on the region, and some of the book’s most troubled characters have been shaped by time spent in boarding schools. The focus, however, is not on the native/settler tensions, but on the extended Haisla community and the interior lives of the characters.
Ghosts, sasquatches, and an army of crows move in and out of the book. Lisa has a strange “little man with red hair” who gives of personal warnings. Her grandmother nurtures Lisa’s ability to relate to the supernatural, sharing practices and rituals with her. She warns Lisa of the dangerous nature of her gifts. Other family members, however, scoff at their spiritual experiences. What Lisa experiences are particular images, not the fantasy or magical realism of other cultures. Regarding her description of such experiences, Robinson herself has expressed her hesitancy at writing down the oral rituals of her tradition choosing respectfully to omit and change details.
The splendid landscape of the Pacific Northwest is also fundamental to the novel. Robinson gives readers the mountains and waters, the light and the wind. Fishing trips along the bays and inlets are described in realistic detail. The beauty and the isolation of Haisla region make Monkey Beach unique. Her obvious love of her homeland leaves me with the desire to visit.
I strongly urge others to read this fine book for its beauty and its depiction on Indigenous life in today’s world.