A Trickster for our times








Book review essay by Daniel Gawthrop posted on British Columbia Review on June 21, 2023

Trickster Trilogy
by Eden Robinson

Son of a Trickster
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2017.
$21.00 / 9780345810793

Trickster Drift
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2018.
$21.00 / 9780735273443

Return of the Trickster
Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2021.
$21.00 / 9780735273474


I’ve never been a big fan of magical realism in fiction. While I get what it’s trying to achieve and recognize when it succeeds, as a reader I prefer my novels grounded in the rational. You know: realistic stories that keep the hocus-pocus to a minimum. If a novel does not pass my Enlightenment sniff test for plausibility, and there is not some greater literary purpose at work, I will probably put the book down and turn to something else.

That didn’t happen with Eden Robinson’s 2017 novel, Son of a Trickster. Charmed by the Haisla/Heiltsuk novelist’s storytelling gifts, I found myself going along with all the shape-shifting—the talking ravens, the lethal attacks by coy wolves, the ghosts and dolphins coming out of walls—until I realized that I’d read the entire Trickster Trilogy and found it irresistible.

Eden Robinson

When reading novels about Indigenous experience in which the spirit world is critical, a religious skeptic must cut a certain amount of slack for the supernatural. With the Trickster books, Robinson worked a fair bit of magic herself. Taking the spirit world and lacing it with horror film grotesquery, mind-numbing violence, and no shortage of humour, she ended up fusing the supernatural with the material present in a manner that takes her readers into the mind of her protagonist. She drags us along for a wild ride that is at turns frightening, sad, nauseating, and hilarious. It is not always certain what’s real, what’s imagined, or what is simply a drug-or-alcohol-fuelled hallucination during this ride, but we are compelled to stick around for the denouement.


As with any good trilogy or mini-series (which “Trickster” became as a CBC production in 2020, winning three Canadian Screen Awards), the success of this one rests on the likability of its chief protagonist. Jared Martin, who begins Son as an under-sexed but over-stimulated sixteen-year-old of questionable lineage, fits the bill. A member of the Heiltsuk and ‘Namgis Nations, Jared inspires our empathy as a typical teenager enduring a tough upbringing in a northern B.C. resource town: he awkwardly seeks validation from his elders, succumbs to peer pressure (he’s a stoner who sells weed cookies, wastes time playing video games, and goes to parties where he drinks himself into oblivion), and struggles to find his place in the world.

We admire his sensitivity and compassion. Jared reveals an uncanny capacity, for someone his age, to care for people much older than himself. He secretly lends money to his broke and estranged father and admonishes his potty-mouthed, alcoholic mother for over-sharing about her sex life. He rarely curses (“Holy crap” and “Good gravy” are frequent refrains), has a strong sense of decorum (he says “Ewww!” a lot when disgusted), thinks of others before himself, and is constantly in survival mode. Readers cannot help but root for him.

The older women who compete for Jared’s affections and loyalty, who try to steer him in their idea of the right direction—but who infantilize him by using his “Jelly Bean” nickname well into his teens—are central characters. Jared’s mother, Maggie, hates her own mother, Anita Moody, partly because she accuses Jared of being a Trickster spirit. Nana Sophia, apparently the paternal grandmother, is Jared’s favourite. He hides his correspondence with her from Maggie, who is quick to express FOMO resentment. Aunt Georgina, early in Son, offers Jared a ride he doesn’t accept because he knows she’s a witch. (For a while, Georgina seems a benevolent influence in Jared’s life. She takes him to an AA meeting and then, for his one-year sobriety anniversary, gifts him $1,000 and the AA’s Big Book.)

Trickster — “Episode 1.” Actor Joel Oulette as Jared © 2020 Sienna Films Trickster XIX Inc.

The men in Jared’s life are a similarly mixed bunch. Sad-sack Philip, the stepdad, is a failed provider and one of several hundred workers laid off from the Eurocan pulp and paper mill. (He shows up in Return as a born-again Christian.) David, Maggie’s most recent ex, is a hot-tempered white man who we learn attacked Jared one day, breaking his ribs. Maggie’s creative use of a nail gun to stop the assault leads David, much later, to seek revenge on Jared. There is much lampoonery of classic Canadiana in Jared’s friendship with Dylan, a school bully who torments him before eventually drawing closer to him. Dylan, a promising hockey player, quits the sport after a teammate, Bam-Bam, steals his girlfriend Ebony. There’s a strain of homoerotic humour in his resulting emasculation and growing vulnerability as he comes to depend on Jared. (Think Sherman Alexie meets Letterkenny.)

There is nothing homoerotic, though, about Jared’s friendship with his gay cousin Dakota (tired of being teased for his “stripper name,” he prefers Kota). Kota’s gayness is irrelevant: we only know because he comes out to Jared by revealing why his father kicked him out of the house. Other than a few references to possible boyfriends, there’s no hint of sexuality in him other than this note from Return, when Kota arrives in Kitimat to pick up Jared: “His cousin had neatened his haircut to better show his neck tattoo and wore strategically ripped jeans and a T-shirt that indicated how much workouts meant to him.”

Eden Robinson. Robin Rowland photo

Their relationship is tender and trusting: Jared and Kota rely on each other as fellow alcoholics who have dried out. When one of them asks the other, “Want to go to a meeting?” we know what kind of meeting it is without Robinson needing to tell us or provide details of what is “shared” there. We already know. Jared and Kota support each other’s efforts to stay dry and are hardest on themselves, not each other, when they fall off the wagon. In true AA fashion, there is lots of coffee drinking in Drift and Return: after a while it is almost comical how often Jared and Kota offer each other a cup in the solidarity of mutual sobriety.

There’s also a lot of junk food in this trilogy, enough arterial clogging to send anyone to a heart clinic. As one chapter title puts it, “KFC and Beer Solve Everything.” (Yes, and so do pizza and beer, buckets of chicken with fries, and Kraft dinner.) Fast food joints get their product placement here, too: there’s plenty of Dairy Queen, A&W, and Tim Horton’s to create a starker, satirical contrast with the spirit world. Maybe that’s why there’s so much vomiting across the books, though much of the nausea is alcohol- or drug-induced.

The dialogue in this trilogy is marked by its sarcasm and irony, a form of snark that is often affectionate, as in this text exchange between Jared and Nana Sophia:

If your mom and her Neanderthal get too carried away with the holiday booze-fest, can you stay with the pride of my loins?

Dad’s fresh off Oxy. Shirley’s on a tear. Her daughter’s knocked up and staying with them, with her chihuahuas.

Well, I think Norman Rockwell painted that picture already. No one’s original anymore.

Jared Googled Norman Rockwell, then hooted and gave Nana a LMFAO!

In Son, the magical realism starts when Jared’s girlfriend Sarah, a somewhat homely and gender fluid soul with a penchant for self-harm, decides to share magic mushrooms with Jared before they make love. Only then does he see the cloud of fireflies above her head, following her everywhere. The first appearance of Wee’git, Jared’s Trickster dad, arrives in the form of a raven that suddenly speaks to give him personal grooming advice. (Don’t drown yourself in Axe Body Spray, quoth the raven: it turns girls off rather than exciting them.) By the time Jared loses a toe in a terrifying moment in a cave with river otters, we know the spirit world is trying to tell him something about his search for his true identity.


Eden Robinson. Chris Young photo

Trickster explores some of the contrasts between the hardscrabble north of B.C. and the concrete jungle of fast-paced, urban Lower Mainland life. The north is a wild place where domestic cats begin disappearing after a pack of wolverines moves into the neighbourhood; it’s where a long, lonely walk on a highway can result in a helpful ride…or the threat of a witch (or homicidal rapist) at the wheel. In Vancouver, where Drift begins, hiding is easier. Or so Jared thinks. When he lands in the city at age 17, he’s been sober for a year and is studying diagnostic medical sonography at BCIT. But David, his mom’s angry ex, has tracked him down at his West End hostel and begins stalking him. Jared accepts an offer from his mom’s sister, Mave, to stay at her place in East Vancouver, a set of rooms in Luma Native Housing.

Mave is a complex character: she is also Mavis Moody, the poet who runs her own clothing store on the Drive, Sartorial Resistance, and is an unrepentant Vancouver Canucks fanatic who appears at various points wearing a Canucks T-shirt, sweater, pyjamas or hat, even getting her Volkswagen Beetle wrapped in the blue, green & black of the NHL team’s classic jersey colours. With Jared, Mave is protective to the point of being smothering. She’s into giving big hugs, which is not Jared’s style.

Although Mave offers a welcome home, there’s a mural on the wall in Jared’s room that attracts ghosts. At first, he burns sage and sweetgrass to get rid of them, but later he learns they are friendly. A mysterious white man in a bathrobe, who keeps sitting in the living room watching Doctor Who reruns, is Arthur Dent, of Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy fame. Once he’s revealed not to be a threat, Jared engages him in bitchy banter.


Return, the final instalment of the trilogy, has the most supernatural phenomena of the three novels. It’s where the forces of evil threaten to unleash their full fury on Jared and his loved ones. But by this point the reader understands that not all of the shapeshifting going on in in the Trickster books is of the supernatural variety. Key figures in Jared’s life—Maggie, Mave, his two grandmothers, Phil, Sarah—change dramatically in his perception of them when new facts are revealed.

When Return begins Jared has woken up, naked and badly beaten, on the floor of his mother’s home in Kitimat which has just been sold. We don’t know how he got there from five hundred miles away, but we suspect—and it becomes his story—that he has fallen off the wagon, and fallen hard, as a result of events in Vancouver involving David and Georgina. Philip Martin, Jared’s stepdad, has come for him from Terrace, since Maggie has moved to Winnipeg with Richie (but is now in Vancouver, worried sick about her son after his disappearance). Kota is soon on his way up from the city to take his cousin back down.

The underlying theme of personal identity that runs through this page-turner of a trilogy—questions like Who am I? What is my origin story? Who are my real parents, and what ideal of “family” is most important?—keeps us invested in Jared’s well-being. They’re the reason we stick around for the ending, which does not disappoint. Eden Robinson takes what appears to be a coming of age story and turns it into something much greater. In exploring the tensions between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cultures, rural and urban life, substance use and recovery, individual freedom and community living, and the will to forget versus the imperative to confront the past, the Trickster Trilogy has become a Canadian—and British Columbian—classic.

Eden Robinson. Photo © Red Works Photography