Review of Son of a Trickster by Eden Robinson
Son of a Trickster
by Eden Robinson
Second review: March 8, 2019
I picked up Trickster Drift when it came out, but I knew I wanted to re-read Son of a Trickster to refresh my memory before I started the sequel. I’m really glad I did. It has given more an extended visit to Jared’s world, and what an interesting world this is.
I really love this book, and re-reading it has only increased my appreciation for its depth and the skill of Robinson’s writing. My earlier review goes into more detail, and my experience this time around provoked a lot of the same reactions. In particular, Robinson’s deft pop culture and SF references are so great.
One thing that changed this time around? In my first review, I was critical of how Robinson mixes magic and quantum mechanics. It’s a trope that’s so common I feel it’s cliché, and I was looking at it through that lens. This time around, though, I’ve changed my mind. I actually really like how the fireflies, in particular, attempt to explain what’s happening to Jared in the best way they can manage with our words. Robinson is really making the point that magic isn’t necessarily undiscovered or uncomprehended science; it’s actually a wholly different way of examining our world as it relates to other universes. It’s something that we ordinary humans just aren’t equipped to understand, like a missing sense or organ, but some people, like Jared, are immersed in it.
Highly recommend this book, and the sequel.
First review: February 6, 2017
Son of a Trickster came across my Twitter feed one day and I knew I had to read it. I’m trying to read more books by Indigenous authors, and this one looked really good. Sure enough, it’s a smart and savvy novel that delivers great characters and dialogue, never compromising on its message while still remaining entertaining. Thanks to NetGalley and Knopf for providing me with an ARC.
Jared, like Eden Robinson herself, is Haisla and Heiltsuk and lives in Kitimat, British Columbia. When we first meet him, as a young boy, his parents are moving west—following work—and his maternal grandmother is being mean to him, claiming his father isn’t really his father but that he is instead Wee’git’s son, a trickster’s son. In contrast, Jared’s paternal grandmother showers him with affection and remains a source of support throughout much of the intervening years. Jumping ahead to when Jared is 16, the novel shows us a very different world: Jared lives with his mom, who wants him to have nothing to do with his father, though he is secretly giving money to his father and stepsister. He’s basically just trying to keep his head down, get through school, make enough money to help out his family, etc. But people, and other beings, keep getting in the way.
Son of a Trickster does not pull its punches when it comes to the bleakness of its situation. In many ways it reminds me of Lullabies for Little Criminals. In both cases, the protagonist lives in poverty with negligent parents. Jared has somewhat more agency than Baby did, a function of his age, gender, and particular circumstances: he is still in school, and at 16 he has started figuring out how to earn his own cash. But make no mistake: this is not a “feel good” novel of “redemption.” There is a lot of swearing and a lot of darkness. Jared seems inexorably to jump from frying pan to fire, and the cloying sheen of the “it gets better” after-school special is nowhere to be seen.
I love Jared as a character. He’s just so … 16, but that mature kind of 16 that crops up when you can’t rely on your parents. And he is just so good. He could easily embrace crime, start dealing drugs like Richie and his mom want him to, start carrying a gun and becoming a heavy … but he deliberately pushes that out of his life. He goes over to his next-door neighbour to shovel her drive and help her with chores. He works assiduously to earn enough money to help out his dad. Yes, he smokes pot and makes pot cookies for his largest source of income (he also has a paper route). But Robinson captures that paradox of being 16: you’re too old to be called a child but too young to be treated fully like an adult.
Jared is still in school, trying to survive Grade 10 in this book, and that’s kind of amazing given all the shit he has to deal with. Sometimes he has to take buses across town to give money to his stepsister to pay off his dad’s back rent … and still he tries to study and do his homework. Sure, he isn’t always successful—but when some kids would drop out, Jared perseveres. And note that I’m not trying to hold up Jared as some kind of anomaly among 16-year-olds—quite the opposite, in fact. I think many authors underestimate adolescents, but that isn’t the case here.
Nor is Jared pure. He has his share of flaws, makes his share of mistakes. He drinks, even blacks out, and then others have to fill him in on the poor choices he made (hello, viral videos). But there are also times he doesn’t black out, or times he doesn’t make the poorer choice, and Robinson shows us those too. The former are just as important as the latter, because it’s their contrast that makes him a worthwhile protagonist—and, in the end, it’s the choices that Jared makes to confront those past choices that makes him change and grow.
The setting helps to amplify Jared’s struggle for the reader. I’m quite harsh on Jared’s mom here, because I think she’s irresponsible in her parenting, but I am sympathetic to the challenges she faces as a single parent with no stable income. I’ve seen the effects of poverty on families, especially among First Nations youth in an urban environment. The conditions that Robinson depicts in Son of a Trickster are real. Nevertheless, I’ve been fortunate enough in my life never to experience poverty myself. I’ve never known the sensation of not knowing what I’m eating that same day, or lived under the sword of the utility company cutting my power. Jared’s precariousness is a constant presence in this novel, and Robinson represents it in a way that underscores its significance for readers who might otherwise be ignorant of its effects.
This is also an extremely tech and culturally savvy novel. It’s subtle, but by the end of the book I had really come to appreciate how Robinson weaves these elements throughout the book. Jared corresponds with several people via text or Facebook message; the later is his principal mode of communication with Nana Sophia. Robinson’s voice in these moments is very accurate; she captures the atmosphere created by these media. Also, I just love the nerdy references to shows like Doctor Who and Battlestar Galactica, most of which originate from a rez kid, George, who insists Jared start calling him by the “callsign” of Crashpad. Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous youth, are underrepresented as it is in literature—but when they do put in an appearance, there is a tendency to ground them almost exclusively in Indigenous iconography (and often generic or mistaken iconography at that). These stereotypes are so pervasive that our Prime Minister recently commented at a town hall that the youth he spoke with want “canoe storage” over rec centres with WiFi. (Insert audible eyerolling here.) Robinson combats this stereotype quite neatly here, for Crashpad might live on the reserve, but he and his friends are just as phone-obsessed, Internet binging, sci-fi watching as teenagers of any stripe.
When Haisla/Heiltsuk traditions and history are referenced, it’s because it relates to the plot or characters in some way. Jared learns a little bit about how his maternal grandmother’s experiences at residential school affected her. Several of the women in his life, from his mother to Nana Sophia to some others I won’t spoil, are “witches” with access to powers and spells; other characters share with Jared a heritage that is more-than-human. There’s a bit of an American Gods vibe happening here, although I recognize the latter is a pastiche of various religions and mythologies whereas this one is much more about Jared’s personal journey through the cultures that lay claim to him.
As I don’t have the cultural background necessary to critique how Robinson portrays these elements, I’m not going to go into much detail there. However, I wasn’t sold on the way she uses the firefly beings that Jared sees to try to syncretize the magic with quantum mechanics. Any time someone tries to use quantum mechanics as an excuse for magic, a little alarm bell labelled “what the bleep to we know” goes off in my brain. It’s not that I’m against attempts to explain magic in pseudoscientific ways—that can be fun, because this is, after all, fiction. Nevertheless, these kinds of attempts at equivalency tend to muddle what is already a muddy subject, because quantum mechanics is counter-intuitive and poorly explained, let alone understood. I think I get why Robinson did this, but I could have done without that entire element. Thankfully, it isn’t a huge part of the plot and is easy enough to ignore.
In addition to the tech/culture savviness, I love the subversive moments, like this one where Robinson has characters confront the gender binary. For all that I loved most of the dialogue, I actually only highlighted one passage in this book:
“No, you don’t understand. I’m not regretting it. I’m saying I don’t believe in monogamy, but I don’t fall in the sack with just anyone. And I certainly don’t believe in gender the way you do, and you’ve made it clear that you find my ways ‘pervy.’”
“I’m normally attracted to people willing to push heteronormative boundaries.”
Jacob felt his eye twitching. “So you’re gay?”
“There you go,” Sarah said. “Thinking in Western binaries again.”
“So you’re not gay.”
“It’s like talking to a wall,” Sarah said through gritted teeth. “Do you even listen to anything I say?”
“But what does that mean? For us?”
“It means you confuse the hell out of me. I’m frustrated.”
“Well, that’s a big ditto.”
“You’re so retro. How can I be with someone who still defines himself as strictly male?”
“So you like chicks? Or guys … or both? Is that, like, the trans one or the bi?”
Sarah stopped swinging her legs and coolly considered him. She hopped down. “You’re so not getting laid tonight.”
I’m so-so on Sarah as a character, but I like the romance/not-a-romance between her and Jared. Again, it feels a lot less contrived or stereotypical than how these kinds of relationships are so often portrayed in books featuring young adults.
As far as classifying this book, I suppose it might be called a “young adult novel”, though this is an example of how that label never really feels appropriate. This is a book adults should be reading, and a book that adolescents could read and enjoy too. Yes, there is sex and swearing and drugs and drinking in it. If you think your adolescent isn’t aware of these things among their peers and even participating in such things themselves, I have a pipeline I can sell to you.
I like the ending. I said before that this is not a novel of redemption, and I stand by that. This is a bleak book—but it’s bleakness with a hopeful ending. Like many such novels, it hits us hard and fast with so much that can go wrong in an adolescent’s life—and then it reminds us that there is always still hope. And I like that, for all that this book is about Jared’s potential link to a Trickster figure, the conclusion is ultimately about Jared becoming more of who he already is rather than trying to shape-shift his identity to match something he is not.
Son of a Trickster, then, is fantastic. I like its representation of an Indigenous teen (for what my opinion as a settler is worth), not that this is surprising considering its #ownvoices origin. Beyond this cultural dimension, though, I just love the book itself. The plot, setting, and characters all come together to deliver a breathtaking and beautiful book, and this is me holding my hand out saying, “Um, sequel please!”