Trigger warning for domestic violence, child abuse, drug use, swearing
This is my contribution to Lisa’s wonderful annual event, ANZ LitLovers Indigenous Literature Week. I’m writing this hurriedly last minute to get it done in time, but do head over to Lisa’s blog to see all the great posts this week and from previous years too!
My reading and blogging has been so poor since the pandemic that I originally planned to post on this short story collection for ILW last year – oh dear. I’ve decided to take it as win that I’ve eventually managed to do so rather than focus on how long it took 😃
Eden Robinson is an Indigenous Canadian, a member of the Haisla and Heiltsuk First Nations. Waaaaaaay back in 2000 I read her first novel Monkey Beach and I thought it was one of the best things I read that year. Then inexplicably I have totally failed to read anything she published since. I’m really pleased that ILW prompted me to pick up her short story collection, Traplines (1996).
I’m a bit of a delicate flower at the moment but I think even if I was feeling super-robust, I still would have found Traplines a tough read. The stories are unflinching in their portrayal of human struggles; determinedly unsentimental, beautifully written and non-sensational. There are four in total so I’m going to focus on two and just give a brief flavour of the others.
The collection begins with the titular story, which I persevered with past the opening hunting scene (I can’t say the title didn’t warn me), only to have my heart torn into a million pieces. Will Bolton is a young man, sensitive, bright and observant:
“Tucca is still as we drive into it. The snow drugs it, makes it lazy. Houses puff cedar smoke and sweet, sharp smell gets in everyone’s clothes. At school in town, I can close my eyes and tell who’s from the village and who isn’t just by smelling them.”
He also has a chaotic home life, bullied and attacked by his older brother, who in turn is bullied and attacked by their father. Will constantly lives on a knife-edge, ready to duck at the next surprise blow.
“I back into the kitchen. He follows. I wait until he is near before I bend over and ram him. He’s slow because of the pot and slips to the floor […] Eric stands on the porch and laughs. I can’t wait until I’m bigger. I’d like to smear him against a wall. Let him see what it feels like. I’d like to smear him so bad.”
Mrs Smythe is Will’s English teacher and she sees his potential. She and her husband offer Will a place to stay away from the violence, the escalating drug use he is surrounded by, the self-destructiveness of everyone he knows. Robinson builds the portrait of Will’s life expertly, showing how he is at a crossroads he only vaguely recognises, and how the choice he’ll make is so fragile and yet so irreversible.
“If I could, I’d follow her.”
The next story Dogs in Winter had a slightly lighter tone but this is comparative. It was still very, very dark. “He smelled of Old Spice and I felt like I was in a commercial. Everything would be perfect, I thought, if only Canada had the death penalty.”
Contact Sports was the longest in the collection and at 109 pages is really a novella. Robinson wrote about the characters further in her novel Blood Sports (2006). This story was an absolute masterclass in how to create a pervading sense of unease and menace. It really got under my skin.
Tom lives with his mother and her successive boyfriends. Money is stretched to breaking point. Then his cousin Jeremy shows up and stays with them. Jeremy has been thrown out of the army, although Tom doesn’t know why. He has loads of money, Tom doesn’t know where from. He is amenable at first, but entirely untrustworthy.
Gradually Jeremy calls in the favours he has done Tom, to exert a deeply bullying and abusive hold over him, dictating his behaviour and humiliating him at every opportunity.
“‘Look, it’s really very simple. I’ll pay off your bills, one bill a week, and I’ll help with rent and food, and all you have to do is one itty bitty little thing.’
Tom said cautiously, ‘What?’
‘Oh it’s simple. All I want you to do is be good.’”
So insidious, so terrifying. It’s a bleak story, with humour that is raw to the bone:
“Tom stood on the corner watching Jeremy’s car squeal down the street. Just my luck. The only person who really gives a shit if I live or die is a whacked-out drug addict who likes playing God.”
The final story Queen of North sees a woman reclaim power over the person who abused her as a child in a breathtakingly visceral way. I won’t give more details on that but I’ll give a sample of the opening paragraphs which demonstrate the brilliance of Eden Robinson’s observations of the natural world:
“In my memory, the sun is setting and the frogs begin to sing. As the light shifts from yellow to orange to red, I walk down the path to the beach. The wind blows in from the channel, making the grass hiss and shiver around my legs. The tide is low and there’s a strong rotting smell from the beach. Tree stumps that have been washed down the channel from the logged areas loom ahead – black, twisted silhouettes against the darkening sky.”
Although I won’t be rushing to a re-read of Traplines right now, I’m so glad I read it and remembered what a stunning writer Eden Robinson is. She is precisely descriptive, compassionate but unwaveringly realistic in her characterisation. I’ll definitely be hunting down her Trickster trilogy, the first of which has been adapted for television: