(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sometimes classified as a short story, the prose poem “The Flood” weaves the Native American myth of the watersnake with the tragic story of a contemporary sixteen-year-old Creek girl. The legend underlying Harjo’s story recounts the tale of a water monster who takes the form of a handsome warrior and seduces a young woman. Leaving her family, the girl becomes his wife and lives with him at the bottom of the lake. The modern Creek girl also meets a man by the lake and is seduced by him. However, she imagines that her lover “was not a man, but a myth” and believes that she has participated in a sacred ritual. The girl’s parents are embarrassed by her actions, and, to cover their shame, they arrange her marriage to an older man of the tribe. The girl rejects the marriage.

Eventually, the girl disappears in a tornado, but later it is learned that she died not from the storm but by drowning. Older tribal members believe that the watersnake punished the girl for disobeying her parents. Others believe that the girl accidentally drowned when she drove her car into the lake after consuming a six-pack of beer. The narrator offers a third opinion—that the girl’s depressing life on the reservation clashed with her Native American heritage. The cultural conflict led her to commit suicide.

Harjo believes that keeping tribal oral traditions alive is vital to the survival of Native American people. Ignoring the sacred myths risks the destruction of American Indian culture. The people in the story have lost their connection with the natural world by adopting the values of modern Western society. Ironically, the watersnake, the ancient god of wind and rain, has the last word. As the title of the story implies, cultural disintegration will result if the power of nature is not respected.

The Flood Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In the first of two first-person narratives, a Creek tribal member recalls the events leading to the death of a sixteen-year-old Creek girl. In connecting these events with the Native Indian myth of the watersnake, the narrator emphasizes the importance of old myths to the survival of the Native American people. The narrative voice then switches to the girl herself, who underscores how the myths of her people have “soaked into my blood since infancy like deer gravy so how could I resist the watersnake, who appeared as the most handsome man in the tribe.”

In paralleling the incidents of the girl’s life, the myth of the watersnake is a central influence on her perception of reality. One version of the legend recounts the tale of a young girl who is seduced by the water monster, who has transformed himself into a handsome warrior. The girl leaves her family to become the watersnake’s bride and then lives with him at the bottom of a lake. In “The Flood,” the sixteen-year-old girl also meets a man by the edge of a lake and allows herself to be seduced by him. From her point of view, the man who seduces her “was not a man, but a myth” and is an incarnation of the watersnake. Because of the mythic nature of the incident, the girl believes that she has participated in a sacred event. On the other hand, her parents simply regard her premarital sexual experience as shameful. By arranging a quick marriage to an “important” older man of the tribe, her parents attempt to erase the dishonor brought on their family by her misconduct. The daughter persists in believing that the man she met by the lake is the embodiment of the water monster...

(The entire section is 677 words.)