Eden Robinson

Monkey Beach

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Monkey Beach Summary

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Set in the village of Kitimat on a First Nations Reserve in British Columbia, Aboriginal Canadian author Eden Robinson’s novel Monkey Beach (2000) tells the story of a Haisla teenager who relives key moments of her life while investigating the mysterious disappearance of her brother. In 2001, the book won the Ethel Wilson Fiction Prize awarded to writers from British Columbia.

At the beginning of the novel, Lisamarie Hill learns from the Coast Guard that her brother, Jimmy, and his friend, Josh, have disappeared at sea. Along with their boat, the two went missing while on a fishing trip off the coast of Namu, a small port town. While her parents, Gladys and Al, travel to Namu in search of their son, Lisamarie stays in Kitimat with her Aunt Edith. While she waits, Lisamarie largely lives inside her own head, losing herself in memories of her childhood. She recollects a family vacation to Monkey Beach, during which she and Jimmy search for sasquatches. It is also during this trip that Lisamarie first learns that she possesses strange and rather ill-defined supernatural powers. For example, she frequently experiences dreams and premonitions that seem to bring her into contact with otherworldly beings. It is as if Lisamarie lives her life with one foot in the natural world and the other in the spirit world.

Through other memories, the reader is introduced to Lisamarie’s extended family. Her emotionally unstable and hard-drinking Uncle Mick introduces Lisamarie to Western pop culture artifacts, particularly the music of Elvis Presley. At the same time, Uncle Mick emphasizes the importance of the family’s Haisla heritage, having been a native rights activist as a young man. Despite his problems, Uncle Mick’s free-spirited ways provide Lisamarie with a much-needed escape from her strict parents. The other major influence in Lisamarie’s life is her grandmother, Ma-ma-oo. With the help of Ma-ma-oo, Lisamarie comes to better understand her supernatural powers and how they fit in with Haisla traditions. In this section, Lisamarie also shares memories of her alcoholic Aunt Trudy and Trudy’s troubled daughter, Tab.

Meanwhile, the reader learns more about Jimmy through Lisamarie’s recollections. She recalls learning to swim with her brother, who would later find great success on the local swim team. Lisamarie regrets having grown apart from Jimmy, as his athletic feats make him more popular at school. Conversely, Lisamarie’s supernatural gifts make it hard for her to connect with classmates, turning her into a social outcast.

Every time her family is visited by tragedy, Lisamarie encounters a little red-haired man shortly beforehand. While out picking medicinal herbs, Lisamarie asks Ma-ma-oo about the little man’s identity. She learns from Ma-ma-oo that he is a spirit guide but also a trickster. Lisamarie is shocked to learn that all the women of her family possess these supernatural abilities, albeit to varying degrees. Even her mother, Gladys, possesses the gift but has chosen to ignore it as much as possible so she won’t be considered a social misfit.

Back in the present, Lisamarie dreams that Jimmy is on Monkey Beach. Because her dreams often come true, Lisamarie snaps out of her reverie, deciding to aid her parents in their search for Jimmy. However, before she can leave, she receives a call from her parents informing her that an empty lifeboat has washed up on the coast in Namu. Now frantic, Lisamarie hops in the family’s motorboat, making her way down the coast to where she believes she will find Jimmy. While piloting the boat, Lisamarie remembers receiving a visit from the little red-haired man shortly before her Uncle Mick died suddenly. Angry with herself for having not acted on the premonition, Lisamarie resolves to stop suppressing her gifts, opening herself up to visitations from the spirit world, even during her waking hours. Because of her increasingly odd behavior, Lisamarie’s classmates begin to ostracize her. She begins to run with a group of rowdy male bullies led by Frank, her former tormentor and now her ally against the popular girls at school.

Despite her closer connection to the spirit world, Lisamarie struggles to interpret its signals. After a visit from the little red-haired man, Ma-ma-oo suffers a near-fatal heart attack. The night after yet another visit from the little man, a friend of Frank’s named Cheese rapes Lisamarie at a party. Frustrated by her inability to act on the little man’s vague warnings, Lisamarie banishes the little man. After, she receives no warning before Ma-ma-oo suffers a debilitating stroke. She comes to miss the little man, who eventually returns shortly before Ma-ma-oo dies in a fire. As the spirits predicted, Lisamarie experiences a financial windfall, inheriting $200,000 from Ma-ma-oo.

With no one left to help Lisamarie make sense of her abilities, she tries to suppress her gift—along with her grief—by moving to Vancouver and adopting a hard-partying lifestyle. In the process, she blows much of her inheritance on drugs and alcohol. One day, Lisamarie is visited by a vision of her cousin, Tab. Worried that this means Tab is dead, Lisamarie goes home and learns from Aunt Trudy that Tab is alive and in rehab. Inspired by this to get her life back on track, Lisamarie moves home and re-enrolls at school.

Back in the present for the last time, Lisamarie makes a stop at Monkey Beach hoping to find Jimmy, but he is nowhere to be seen. She desperately appeals to the spirit world to help locate Jimmy, even cutting herself to use her blood as a sacred offering. However, while numerous spirits visit her, including lost loved ones, none of them tells her where to find Jimmy. In the final vision, Ma-ma-oo visits Lisamarie and warns her to cease hurting and endangering herself.

Monkey Beach is an emotionally charged coming-of-age story that examines the tensions between native traditions and modernity.