I want to stay here on Monkey Beach. Some places are full of power, you can feel it, like a warmth, a tingle. No sasquatches are wandering around the beach today, chased by ambitious, camera-happy boys. Just an otter lounging in the kelp bobbing in the surf and the things in the trees, which may or may not be my imagination.
Jimmy Hill is lost at sea, the fishing boat he was on has lost contact and things are not looking good. Lisamarie, his older sister, waits for information as the search and rescue operation begins. And she begins to reflect on her life in Kitamaat, in this small Haisla Canadian Indian community that she’s grown up in with her family, relatives, friends, sasquatches and ghosts. The narrative moves from present to past and back again, as Lisa chalks up her own (ship)wrecked life. One of alcohol and drugs, of bullies and gangs at school, of tragedies and lost loved ones. And always, forever present, the spirits, the ghosts, the premonitions that surround her, are a part of her life, make her who she is.
It just so happened that Open Road sent me an email offering an e-book version of Monkey Beach for review. I don’t receive many of these types of emails so I’ll just chalk it up to fate! I was meant to read this book and write about it for Diversiverse!
Because what a book it is. And so deserving of being read by more people, whether for Diversiverse or RIP or otherwise.
Monkey Beach was, for me, one of the more, well, diverse reads in these past few weeks of Diversiverse reading.
The Haisla culture, the life in this village north of Vancouver. It’s myths and customs, food and traditions. All completely new to me.
Then there’s that very stark difference between my current suburban American life and my Singaporean childhood, teenhood and adulthood (very urban, very populated, fast-paced, where even in the middle of the night there is noise from somewhere. Singapore is far from quiet) and life in Kitamaat, where boat trips are common, where her family goes camping or fishing or foraging in the woods for berries.
Oolichan grease is a delicacy that you have to grow up eating to love. Silvery, slender oolichans are about as long as your hand and a little thicker than your thumb. They are part of the smelt family and are one of the tastiest fish on the planet. Cooking oolichans can be as simple as broiling them in the oven until they’re singed— which is heavenly but very smelly, and hard on your ears if you have a noisy smoke alarm— or as touchy and complicated as rendering oil from them to make a concoction called grease. Oolichans can also be dried, smoked, sun-dried, salted, boiled, canned, frozen, but they are tastiest fresh. The best way to eat fresh oolichans is to run them through with a stick and roast them over an open fire like wieners, then eat them while they’re sizzling hot and dripping down your fingers.
I loved going to Monkey Beach, because you couldn’t take a step without crushing seashells, the crunch of your steps loud and satisfying. The water was so pure that you could see straight down to the bottom. You could watch crabs skittering sideways over discarded clam and cockleshells, and shiners flicking back and forth. Kelp the colour of brown beer bottles rose from the bottom, tall and thin with bulbs on top, each bulb with long strands growing out of it, as flat as noodles, waving in the tide.
Lisa’s relationship with her family is also a big part of the book. Her beloved Uncle Mick, a Native rights activist, the kind of uncle who lets out a moose call to attract their attention at a party. Her cantankerous and rather hilarious grandmother Ma-ma-oo who teaches her about Haisla ways, whose thrifty ways meant her curtains were so threadbare, her TV picked up CB signals, but her fishing nets were always immaculate.
It is also a story that speaks of a love for place and culture, as Robinson has set it in the village of Kitamaat where she was born. And while remote, this little community cannot ignore the encroachment of the rest of the world and its influences.
The tide rocks the kelp beds, the long dark leaves trail gently in the cloudy green water. I hear squeaking and chirping. Dark bodies twirl in the water, pause, still for a moment as I’m examined. I dip my hands in the water and the sea otters dart away, then back, timid as fish. Well, I’m here, I think. At Monkey Beach.
And with its restless spirits, its ghostly premonitions, the visions of Sasquatches, Lisa’s life hovers between two worlds.
“I heard something crunching on the hardened snow. In the distance, I could hear whistles. Something was coming towards me. I kept watching the sky. No one’s here, I told myself. I’m not letting my imagination get away from me. I am alone, and I don’t see anything but the auroras, low on the horzion, undulating to their own music.”
Monkey Beach is that gem of a book that sweeps you off your comfy reading chair and into the embrace of a different place altogether – the salty sea breeze caresses your hair and the greasy scent of oolichans sizzling on the campfire lures you in. And all the time, those restless spirits murmur and whisper.
Eden Victoria Lena Robinson is a novelist and short story writer from Haisla First Nation, an Indigenous nation in British Columbia, Canada.
Monkey Beach (2000)
Blood Sports (2006)
Sasquatch at Home: Traditional Protocols & Modern Storytelling (2011)