Today’s review is the third from the participants in the Canada Reads event recently held at the Lennoxville Library.
Reviewed by Sébastien Lebel-Grenier
Son of a Trickster is a ‘coming of age’ novel about a sixteen-year-old boy with a big heart and a knack for getting himself into complicated situations. His name is Jared and he lives in Kitimat, BC.
Frankly, some would say Jared is a loser: he’s on a fast track to becoming a dropout, regularly blacks out after binge drinking, tends to get beat up and has somewhat of a foul mouth. In fact, this book has been dropped into a potion of swearing and foul language–be advised. And also, Jared gets by on money he makes through baking and selling the best pot cookies in town.
Mind you, he comes from a disturbingly dysfunctional family. His mother is sometimes fiercely protective of him: she nail-gunned a former boyfriend to the floor when he tried to crush Jared’s ribcage, and she had a pit bull intent on mauling Jared meet an untimely end. She is violent, highly dysfunctional, generally unfit as a mother and, it could be argued, the source of many of Jared’s woes. As a result, Jared crashes in the basement of the family home or couch-surfs at the homes of friends who one could characterize as bad influences.
So why is Jared such a compelling character? First, notwithstanding the chaos that is his life, Jared is a good kid. He genuinely cares about others. He supports his father and his teen-mom stepsister, keeping it secret from his mother. He helps out his neighbor, Ms. Jaks, whose husband has dementia. He falls for Ms. Jak’s activist granddaughter, Sarah, who has her own issues. Jared is anything but oblivious to those who surround him and seeks the solace of genuine human relationships in his troubled existence.
The author, Eden Robinson, obviously loves Jared. She graced him with a complex personality and all the space required to develop as a character through extensive trials and tribulations. Some critics thought these parts of the novel dragged on, but this is a coming of age book; Robinson therefore gives us complete access to the hand Jared has been dealt and the unfolding of events that shape his future trajectory. Indeed, this book is the first of a trilogy and is presumably also meant to provide context for the next two volumes.
Son of a Trickster showcases Robinson’s precise writing, her sense of timing and her storytelling abilities, as well as her witty, matter of fact, violent and very dark humor. Her writing is descriptive, presenting her characters’ points of view without passing judgement on their choices or situation. Her writing also often has a metaphorical, almost poetic quality:
Jared heard dogs barking loud enough that they penetrated his headphones and he looked up and across the street in time to see a tall, swaggering man pause and stare back at him. The man wore a leather jacket too light for the weather and had two pit bulls straining at their chains. His face was burnt brown and his head was shaved and unshapely, bumpy and folded. His nose had a crooked, off-kilter look, like it had been broken then reset in the dark.
Son of a Trickster ‘s characters are deeply flawed, but they are not victims of their circumstances, however dire those might be. The love they awkwardly try to express to one another is ultimately what binds the book together:
“I was your age when I was knocked up. I want you to live a bit before you settle down and give me grandkids.”
Jared played with the tab on his beer can, bending it back and forth. “Sorry.”
“I don’t regret you.”
“Gran doesn’t like me,” he said. “I remember that.”
“My mom’s messed up,” his mom said. “The nuns messed her up. They made her think everything Indian was evil. And that includes you and me.”
The fact that Jared and almost all of the characters are Indigenous is, of course, central to Son of a Trickster, but it does not make the experience of the characters remote or unrelatable to a non-Indigenous reader. As a Haisla/Heiltsuk from BC, Eden Robinson obviously writes from a profound knowledge of the indigenous experience, and she masterfully weaves traditional aboriginal narratives into a universal story about authenticity in the face of hardship.
Indeed, early in the book, Robinson brings us into the realm of the fantastic and of traditional beliefs. Jared hears voices, speaks with animals and sees monsters crawling under little old ladies’ skin. Although he describes himself as a “random town native”, and although magic is increasingly prevalent in his life, he has little appetite for it. However, it will play a central role in the unfolding of the story. The Aboriginal spirits, which increasingly manifest themselves as the book evolves, are part of a complex world: troubled spirits with complicated motivations, the trickster in the title being one of them.
Ultimately though, Robinson has written a book on the banality of poverty, violence, addiction and lack of purpose. She does not dwell on those circumstances but masterfully uses them as context for a deep dive into her characters’ psyches. These circumstances might explain, but they do not define who they are.
This is a story about empathy, resilience and the complex choices involved in growing up. It is also a story about our embeddedness in a complex natural and spiritual world. Underneath the bravado of coarse language, it encourages us to reflect on our purpose and identity in the world, and as such, it should speak to all Canadians.