- Eden Robinson (Author)
Traplines. Knopf Canada (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Dee Horne
In her first collection of short stories, Eden Robinson presents bleak portraits of four adolescents and their dysfunctional families. A Vancouver writer who grew up on the Haisla Nation Kitamaat reserve, Robinson sets her stories on the reservation and in Vancouver. Each story is told from the point of view of an adolescent who endeavors to negotiate constricting, often oppressive, social constraints. These slivers of life evoke the growing pains of adolescence; each character desires to
belong, to be accepted by their peers, yet also longs to escape from their family and community. While they survive, they never escape their surroundings. Instead, Robinson conveys the frustrations of characters who are helpless and disempowered.
Unlike Thomas King’s One Good Story, That One or Sherman Alexie’s Tonto and Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven, Robinson’s Traplines does not overtly challenge settler images or stereotypes of First Nations. Instead of asking us to "imagine the reservation" as Alexie does, Robinson draws readers into the darkness of her characters’ lives. We feel their futility and disempowerment—and cringe.
A danger with this approach is that it can backfire. By describing these First Nations experiences without critiquing the colonial relationship, Robinson may well fuel colonial stereotypes. She depicts the violence and abuse that exists in the village as families face poverty, alcoholism, unemployment, drug addiction and suicide. She does not overtly suggest the causes of these problems, although there are occasional hints that these problems are symptoms of a dysfunctional, colonial society. In "Traplines," the first story, what little restraint Will’s father exercises is to keep the social workers at bay: "Eric has no marks on his face. Dad probably hit him on the back and stomach. Dad has been careful since the social worker came to our house." In this instance, as in Alexie’s Tonto and Lone Ranger Fist Fight in Heaven, fist fights are expressions of misplaced love and frustration in the face of settler intrusions. These allusions to the colonial relationship are rare, however. Robinson uses a strategy that is common in oral traditions; namely she does not explain or account for why things are the way they are. She just takes us into the situation and allows us to come to our own conclusions.
King and Alexie often resist colonial stereotypes and, to borrow Gerald Vizenor’s words, "re-invent the invention" of "Indianness" (Blaeser Gerald Vizenor 39). They present characters who exercise, or strive to exercise, self-determination. In Robinson’s stories, characters’ efforts to determine their own lives prove futile. They remain trapped in lines not of their own making and are pawns in power games they cannot control.
Unlike Thomas King’s story cycle in Medicine River where Will returns home, reconnects to the land, his community and its traditions and finds redemption through all his relations, Robinson presents communities where there is little promise of redemption. While some of the characters dream of Disney-like homes where parents never fight, money is never a problem and life is secure, Robinson demonstrates how these Disney ideals foster unrealistic goals and dissatisfaction and further ensnare her characters.
"Contact Sports" is about power and the mind games that people play in their efforts to manipulate and control others. Tommy, the narrator, is an adolescent struggling to help his mother make ends meet. When his wealthy cousin, Jeremy, comes to visit, his life takes a turn for the worse. Like the Disney characters Tom and Jerry, Jeremy and Tommy engage in cat and mouse games. Readers may well see a correlation between Jeremy’s paternalistic practices and the wardship practices of settlers toward First Nations. By alluding to contact sports, the title suggests that the violence in contact sports (or cultural contacts even) is an expression of unequal power relationships.
Throughout the collection, Robinson focuses on the fine line between buying in, or in this case being bought, and selling out. Characters are seemingly driven to acts of betrayal in their efforts to escape the violence of their surroundings. Robinson portrays these acts as forms of rebellion in which the characters attempt to exert what little power or control they have; ultimately, however, their actions alienate them from their families and communities. In "Traplines," for example, Will attempts to escape the abuse and violence of his home life by seeking refuge in the home of Mrs. Smythe, his high school English teacher. His father perceives his loyalty to his teacher as a betrayal of his family while his peers perceive his affiliation as a form of selling out, of becoming a "townie."
In "Queen of the North," Robinson challenges the idea of loyalty for loyalty’s sake and demonstrates how family and community relations can become oppressive. Unlike the other stories, here Robinson presents a protagonist who not only survives but ends the abuse. The story is about incest and opens with a compelling image of a house in the village where the frogs used to sing. The house has since been abandoned and covered up with rocks and gravel. This image sets the tone for the story about Uncle Josh’s sexual abuse of his niece, Adelaine. Like the frogs, Adelaine has ceased to sing. She has become covered up by rocks and gravel, by a hard exterior in which she acts out her abuse in displays of physical aggression, sexual promiscuity and other forms of rebellion. Uncle Josh tries to buy Adelaine’s silence by giving her money and toys. The frequent time shifts lend a disjointed quality to the story that aptly conveys the narrator’s fragmented identity.
Robinson suggests that while there is often a pattern of abuse, it is possible to destroy the cycle. As a result of seeing photographs of her uncle as a boy, Adelaine suspects that he was abused by his priest. She makes a montage in which she places the photograph of her Uncle Josh when he was a boy on top of the body of Father Archibald and her face on top of Uncle Josh’s. She stops Uncle Josh’s abuse by calling him Father Archibald and telling him that she has said her prayers.
Robinson’s skill as a writer is evident in her ability to craft haunting and, at times, humorous images that resonate throughout the story. "Dogs In Winter" begins with an image of a poodle who "greeted people by humping their legs." This image reinforces the theme of misplaced and excessive love. Using flashbacks and dream sequences, Robinson describes the efforts Lisa, the narrator, makes to come to terms with her mother’s excessive, murderous love. Like Sethe’s love for Beloved, in Toni Morrison’s novel, Lisa’s mother repeatedly demonstrates her ability to murder to protect those she loves. Like Sethe, she believes that betrayal— selling out—is worse than murder. What makes these stories remarkable is the skill with which Robinson draws readers into the grim lives of her characters, snaring us momentarily in their traplines. She uses a sparse minimalist style that reinforces the starkness of her characters’ lives. In the vein of oral traditions, these stories do not tell us what to think. Instead, they are open-ended and leave readers to ponder the dilemmas and issues that they raise. In describing oral storytelling, Lee Maracle explains that "The listeners are drawn into the dilemma and are expected at some point in their lives to actively work themselves out of it.... When our orators get up to tell a story, there is no explanation, no set-up to guide the listener—just the poetic terseness of the dilemma is presented" (Sojourner’s Truth).
Amazed that Traplines "got the critical acclaim it did," W.P. Kinsella recently dismissed Robinson’s book on the grounds that it was "absolutely dreadful. Mediocre writing. Unpleasant stories" (Ð’Ð¡ Bookworld Spring 1997). While the stories may be "unpleasant," they are not "mediocre." Robinson encourages readers to interrogate their assumptions and expectations. Why do stories have to be pleasant? What exactly is unpleasant about these stories and why? By presenting the futility of characters who are trapped in snares they have not created, Robinson encourages readers to question why these snares exist.
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MLA: Horne, Dee. Trapped Tales. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 7 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #156 (Spring 1998). (pg. 160 - 162)
***Please note that the articles and reviews from the Canadian Literature website (www.canlit.ca) may not be the final versions as they are printed in the journal, as additional editing sometimes takes place between the two versions. If you are quoting from the website, please indicate the date accessed when citing the web version of reviews and articles.