Review: ‘Return of the Raven’ by Sue Coleman
British Columbia artist Sue Coleman (“An Artist’s Vision,” 1989) brings her knowledge of the Canadian west coast and its First Nations into her magical first novel Return of the Raven (FriesenPress, July 12, 2013). The novel begins with the Haida creation myth about the role of Raven at the dawn of time in teaching the fledgling humans how to live in the world.
Now, in modern times, Raven–who traces his lineage back to the days when his father and his grandfather talked to spirits and practiced the art of transformation–notices that the world has become a rather sad place of sickening land, dilapidated villages and humans who no longer believe in the spirits. Raven thinks the spirits had fled. He’s afraid to attempt any transformations because, as the old family stories remind him, the magic began to backfire on his father more often than not.
The other animals–including Raccoon and Otter–have little respect for Raven, seeing him as greedy, manipulative and always hungry. Why can’t he do something valuable with his life? After hearing this question more than once, his feelings are a bit hurt and he begins to wonder why the land and water are sick and whether or not something can be done about it.
Inadvertently, Raven saves the life of a frog who begrudgingly agrees to help him track down the sickness in the water. He has no idea how he saved the frog, but it was very definitely a transformation. While Raven finds it hard to push back his pride in his accomplishment, the very fact that it happened suggests that the spirits haven’t fled and that magic is still possible.
Raven’s quest to find what’s harming the land is a hero’s journey story. En route to the answers he seeks, he interacts with gulls, geese and eagles who have wisdom to share while wondering what manner of bird this is who seems to be changing before their eyes from a greedy, self-indulgent trickster into a creature with compassion. Raven begins to suspect that his father’s magic backfired when greed got in the way.
Return of the Raven is a well-told folktale that shows its author’s sensitivity to coastal British Columbia and its wildlife. The environmental and transformation themes come across as wondrous fantasy and deep truth. Raven returns twice, first from his figurative hibernation since the dawn of time, and second as a bird on a quest who can either give up and go back to his lazy habits or, like the triumphant heroes of human myth, return to his own kind with a prize of great value.
Coleman’s lighthearted approach blends old myths and transcendent themes into a charming re-creation story.
Malcolm R. Campbell is the author of contemporary fantasy novels, including “The Seeker” and paranormal stories, including his Emily’s Stories collection about a young girl who fixes what’s broken by talking to birds and ghosts.