The Trickster

by Muriel Gray

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

At over 600 pages, this novel is open to many different strands of analysis. One way that this novel can be interpreted is as an allegory for the corrupting effects of modernity and the negative effects of colonization on indigenous people.

The Trickster shows the damage that an evil spirit wreaks, mostly on indigenous Canadians, in the town of Siding Twenty-Three (aka Silver) and on the Redhorn Reserve. The Trickster spirit is released from its mountain prison when white men in 1907, ignoring the pleas of indigenous Canadian Hunting Wolf and his tribe, blow a hole in the mountain to build a railway. The Trickster possesses people and animals and destroys them from the inside. In 1993, the Trickster spirit is released again, and his rampage is mirrored by a celebrity ski run being held at the Silver Ski Resort.

In both cases, the Trickster is released because of greed: either the greed of the white men wanting to mine Canada or the greed of the ski resort executives. The Trickster feeds on negative human emotion: jealousy—shown when it takes the form of Sam’s wife and makes him think she is sleeping with Craig; grief—shown when it takes the form of Craig’s wife and replays her death; and fear—most of the time when the Trickster appears it is in the form of, as Billy puts it, “his worst dreams come true”. The Trickster is referred to throughout the book as being darkness, a void; its defeat comes by denying its existence and denying it its name.

White characters in the book are seen as being influenced primarily by reason and Western science: Reverend Henderson and policeman Craig McGee are both concerned primarily with what they see as observable facts, the dichotomy between the “real” and “imagined”. Their foundations are shaken by the seemingly impossible murders, and they are shown learning to adjust to new information. On the other hand, Kinchuinick characters are shown accepting the unknowable elements of the natural world and respecting their power: Hunting Wolf in 1907 and Calvin Bitterhand in 1973 and 1993 both see the horror of the Trickster but maintain their connection to the natural and spirit world. The interconnectedness of the natural world and the spirit world are highlighted throughout the novel, and indigenous Canadians are portrayed as having access to knowledge that white people don’t. As Billy puts it, his mom is “white . . . it would stop her understanding. It didn’t make her better or worse, just different . . . she knew some of this stuff in her head but not in her heart.”

The theme of alcohol abuse is also present throughout the book. Sam Hunt’s parents are both alcoholics and live short and unhappy lives as a result. Calvin Bitterhand becomes an alcoholic as a result of the shame he feels at failing as a shaman mentor. The moonshine is shown to be a curse brought to Kinchuinicks by white people; colonizers use alcohol as a way to distract and oppress the Kinchuinick so that they can take their land. As the narrator puts in on page 131, “Keep them happy, keep them poor, keep them drunk, keep them quiet. The unwritten constitution of Canada.”

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