Confession time: I suck at challenges. I like to join, but have little luck finishing them. Which is why I'm SO far behind in the 2nd Canadian Reading Challenge, there is no hope to finish! That being said, I've already done better than last year, so I guess that is some progress. I just finished Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson (374 pgs, Houghton Mifflin Books, 2000). In the grand scheme of things, since I'm not going to finish the challenge, at least I'm reading quality books!
Six crows sit in our greengage tree. Half-awake, I hear them speak to me in Haisla. La'es, they say, La'es, la'es. I push myself out of bed and go to the window, but they launch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs it dark head. La'es - Go down to the bottom of the ocean.
As the story opens, Lisamarie Michelle Hill (and yes, she was named after her Uncle Mick and his love of Elvis!) is waiting with her parents on pins and needles for word of her brother, Jimmy. Jimmy took a job on a fishing boat and it has been lost at sea. Her life is told in a series of flashbacks, about growing up in Kitamaat, an Indian reservation 500 miles North of Vancouver, and homeland to the Haisla people.
Lisamarie was always the trouble maker. Dubbed "Monster" by her favorite uncle, Mick, she was outspoken, questioning, headstrong and ALWAYS in trouble. Her younger brother Jimmy was the golden child. With a natural flare for swimming, he made good grades, did what he was told, and was destined for the Olympics.
We meet her Uncle Mick, a Native Rights activist (and all around trouble-maker himself); her Ma-ma-oo, her grandmother and tradition keeper for the family; her parents, who are devoted to their children and try to infuse both the Haisla way with Western ways; and many other family members.
To delve much deeper into the story would be giving much away. But suffice it to say, this is a story that is about much more than just family ties. It's a story about a heritage that has seen the ups and downs of prejudice. It is the story of the unconditional love that being a part of a family entails. But it's also the story of Lisamarie and the visions she has. Part magical realism and part character study, Monkey Beach is a wonderfully funny, yet heart-breakingly beautiful tale. It is the story of love and loss.....and the grieving process. But it's mostly about self-discovery and how grief can affect who you become.
Lisamarie is a hard character to like. On the surface she is rough and abrasive, but underneath it all is just a scared child that you want to hug (even though you know it will earn you a punch in the chops!) Robinson did not compromise at all with this character. She is unapologetic from beginning to end, but you come to appreciate this in her. Jimmy is a sweet kid. But when he suffers his own sort of loss, he just isn't able to accept it. And as much as she claims to hate him, Lisamarie is the first one in line to help out her brother.
It's hard to review a book that is at once funny, superstitious, and take-your-breath-away sad. And I'm afraid I can not do it justice. Even if you don't appreciate the quirky characters, you should read it for the Haisla heritage and folk stories alone. My favorite being the B'gwus (Sasquatches), and the story of Jimmy trying to find one to take it's picture so the family can be rich.
Eden Robinson was nominated for the Giller Award and the Governor's General Award for Monkey Beach in 2000. I would highly recommend this book. Like I said earlier, to say more about the story would be ruining a lot of it for you, dear readers. So do yourself a favor and read it yourself! 4.5/5