Life is magic
A Heiltsuk teen learns about visions and spirit life on a trip to Bella Bella in Brandon Reid's debut novel.
January 25th, 2024
Reviewer Odette Auger says that Reid’s characters “gift us with the teaching that life is full of magic. [His shaman] Raven goes even further, stating: ‘Life is magic.'”
By Odette Auger
In a brilliant debut, Brandon Reid’s Beautiful Beautiful (Nightwood Press $24.95) is a coming-of-age story about twelve-year-old Derik, who shares the mixed Heiltsuk background of the author.
Derik is returning to his ancestral hometown, Waglisla, which is also known as Bella Bella (Beautiful Beautiful) for his grandfather’s funeral. Reid uses the archetypal device of a sea journey to indicate that a major change in Derik’s life is underway as he travels by boat with his father, George. Also along on the trip is Derik’s shaman Raven—yes, Derik is closer to things beyond the conscious and half the novel is narrated by his inner spirit guide who is named Redbird.
Although we see Redbird as a falcon type bird on the cover of Beautiful Beautiful, it’s important to note the trickster element of shapeshifting that Redbird represents. Redbird also describes himself as “Thunderbird” and draws connections to Quetzalcoatl, an Aztec deity in the form of a feathered serpent that figured in the creation of mankind. Raven, Redbird and Thunderbird become interchangeable.
On the boat trip north, conversations between shaman, father and son weave in and out, moving from social issues (white people using blackface, abuses at residential schools) to finding paths beyond “how to adapt to the Western way…not that they need to,” explains Raven.
Self-sovereignty and decolonization are not talking points, but are intrinsic to the tone, voice and structures of the writing itself. Often, coming-of-age novels move the protagonist through development from a self-centered thinker to a wider, other-focused lens. For Derik, finding his place in the world happens on a few levels including a broader concept of family and a larger community. It also includes validation of the non-linear ways he has already discovered and has been moving towards.
Poetry and visions enter early in this novel, and deconstructing Western narrative begins from the onset. By the third page “they enter a new world, a world of spirit (sure enough) but also that of true Earth, where Nature has her course, where the living gods breathe through her and the deeds of evil men are absorbed, taken apart and reassembled for the greater good,” writes Reid.
Derik pauses at a piano, “by feel he goes, striding across sonic landscapes, raising cities from sand, then letting them fall from his hands. Their sketches fade in resonance; the end alters the start.” With writing like this, Reid’s story circles, rather than moving on a timeline.
It’s a book where the towering cliffs holding gull eggs intermingle with ebon worms of video games and magic. Reid’s characters gift us with the teaching that life is full of magic. Raven goes even further, stating: “Life is magic.”
“Magic is causing change to occur according to will,” Raven teaches Derik. “So aligning anything with your true will and causing it to happen is considered magic.”
When Derik first steps onto the dock at Waglisla, he orientates himself by looking at his father’s face. “His eyes are wide with the spirit now flaming within him, fuelled by the coming home, rising with the past.”
That’s when Derik hears his first eagle. “The call of an eagle coils through Derik’s one ear and out the other, resonating within him, bringing him to joy,” writes Reid. “He bathes in the melodies of the happy, healthy, thriving birds, unlike those scavengers down south fighting over refuse and hand-outs. Here, they are mighty. Here, they are worthy.”
Like most families, there are dynamics to navigate, both for Derik and his father. Coming to terms with the loss of his grandfather and the ongoing impacts of intergenerational trauma are real, not buzzwords. Derik’s fresh eyes on old patterns teach him more about his father, and how he responds to family members’ shifts. As a twelve-year-old, Derik still mourns the loss of a loved pet companion and feels frustrated by a cousin’s acting out. We witness him stepping into his adult self through compassionate gestures that we can all learn from.
Truth-telling starts from the first page, and part of that is seeing how our relatives are coping— and not coping. With a background in both journalism and Indigenous education, Reid navigates the truth-telling with clear-sightedness and grace. I’ll be sharing this book with my own children—young ones who need to know they’re not the only ones disconnected from some family; and older ones I left gaps with, because I was uncertain how to share.
Holding those truths doesn’t need to interfere with how we can reconnect with elements and spirit. Interrupting a conversation about orca and crow dialects, Reid writes: “The wind pushed past, saying, ‘We know you. Follow us.’”
Derik hears this, and asks, “When can I start fishing?”
Beautiful Beautiful fills an essential need for sophisticated and genuine Young Adult novel readers, but I reluctantly place a “coming-of-age” genre tag on this beautiful, beautiful book of brilliance because it is a story for everyone—an insightful teaching tool for those learning about reconciliation, and a powerful sharing of Indigenous guidance. 9780889714540
Odette Auger, a member of Sagamok Anishnawbek through her mother and lives as a guest in unceded toq qaymɩxʷ (Klahoose), ɬəʔamɛn qaymɩxʷ (Tla’amin), ʔop qaymɩxʷ (Homalco) territories.