Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King is a lyrical exploration of the lives of a group of characters living in the small Canadian town of Blossom. Written in 1993, the novel is notable for its portrayal of Native Americans struggling with their identities in the twentieth century. What makes King’s novel unique is the way its structure mirrors its content; all of the Native American characters are grappling with the balance of tradition and modernity. King echoes this conflict structurally by employing an alternating narrative. The framework of the novel is provided by an unseen narrator who interacts with the trickster god, Coyote. These interchanges are based on the recollections of four elderly Native Americans of mythical origins and indeterminate sex.
Interspersed with these mystical segments are the stories of the Native American characters in contemporary Canada. The stories progress in a linear fashion using a much more realistic style. King’s achievement is significant in several ways. First, the mystical statements are a written representation of the oral traditions so important to Native American culture and its perpetuation. Secondly, they establish a stylistic difference from the realistic segments that bear more similarity to traditional White literature. As the story begins to climax, the mythical elements and the realistic elements overlap, and King mirrors that blending in his writing style.
King's stylistic and structural achievements meld with the sociological aims of King’s story in a way that suggests a blurring of the lines between form and content. While the novel contains more than a few indictments of White culture, the novel’s structure makes it clear that the novel is pro-Native American rather than anti-White. By the novel’s end, several of the main characters have found a path in their lives that will allow them to embrace both tradition and modernity.
In Green Grass, Running Water, the line between reality and fantasy is blurred. The novel opens and closes with short sections devoted to Coyote, the trickster, who accounts for many of the book’s inexplicable incidents.
The story then turns briefly to four characters—Robinson Crusoe, Ishmael, the Lone Ranger, and Hawkeye—all presumably Blackfoot Indians who have escaped from the mental institution in which they were confined. Their mission, with the help of Coyote, is to fix the world. These five add considerable humor to the story, but they may leave some readers baffled initially, both because it is not always clear where reality ends and fantasy begins with them and because they overstep linear time lines.
These characters present various creation stories drawn from Greek, Christian, and Native American mythologies. King’s Ahdamn-First Woman story is the Adam and Eve story in contemporary garb; the first two humans on earth eat both fried chicken and the Edenic apple. Young Man Walking On Water (King’s version of Christ) articulates King’s beliefs about the conflict between the Indian culture and the dominant white culture—a major reason for his having written this novel— when he proffers his interpretation of Christian rules: “the first rule is that no one can help me. The second rule is that no one can tell me anything. Third, no one is allowed to be in two places at once. Except me.”
The essence of Green Grass, Running Water is that a know-it-all white culture has intruded insensitively—sometimes dangerously, usually stupidly—upon the folkways of Native American cultures, which have conserved a land and a way of life by means that make environmental sense. These folkways are misunderstood and disrespected by those in nominal power, who refuse to observe long-standing treaties. Such people do not...
Green Grass, Running Water begins with an unnamed narrator telling the story of the trickster god, Coyote, who is fast asleep. As he sleeps, one of his dreams gets away from him and becomes God. They observe that there is water everywhere. As Part One of the novel begins, the pattern of the novel is established: each section is narrated by one of the four Native American elders (Part One by The Lone Ranger, Part Two by Ishmael, Part Three by Robinson Crusoe, and Part Four by Hawkeye.) In each part, stories of the present-day characters alternate with conversations among the four elders as well as each elder’s origin story. Each elder’s origin story begins with them as a female character: First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman and Old Woman, respectively. Eventually, they encounter figures from the Bible (Adam and Eve, Noah, Mary and Gabriel, and Jesus) and ultimately the story of their namesake. The other chapters are each told from a different character’s point of view. Each of these chapters is told in an alternating structure, telling part of that character’s story in the present day and part of their past.
Part One introduces all of the main characters and establishes the central conflicts of the novel. Lionel, on a long drive home with his judgmental aunt, Norma, recalls some of his past mistakes. While filling in for a friend at a conference in Colorado, Lionel accidentally gets swept up in a radical protest. When the police arrive, Lionel is arrested despite his innocence and serves jail time. Lionel also dreams of one day finishing college, which his Aunt says means he wants to be white (a fault she also ascribes to her brother and Lionel’s uncle, Eli). Norma sees for old Native American men by the side of the road and tells Lionel to pull over.
Alberta is a university professor dissatisfied with her own life. Readers first meet her teaching a class about the internment of Native Americans in Fort Marion in the late 1800s. After class, Alberta begins driving home to Blossom. She is dating two men, cousins Charlie and Lionel, and cannot decide between the two. She recalls her failed first marriage to a man named Bob, who wanted her to give up her career to be a stay-at-home mother. Alberta’s unwillingness to lose herself in a man has led her to keep Charlie and Lionel at a distance. When either relationship gets too serious, she pulls back for awhile. She is returning home for Lionel’s fortieth birthday, much to Charlie’s jealousy.
Meanwhile, the police are interrogating Babo Jones, a janitor, and Dr. Hovaugh about the escape of for Native Americans from a mental institution. The interrogations are largely fruitless, but reveal that the four are unnaturally old and may be men or women. As Babo is questioned by Sergeant Cereno, a pool of water appears beneath her car and carries it away.
Part Two introduces Latisha, Lionel’s sister, who runs the Dead Dog Café in Blossom. In the present day, Latisha and her employees wait on a group of tourists and trick them into thinking that eating dog is a Native American custom. Latish flashes back to her marriage to George, a handsome but aimless man. George constantly criticizes Latisha’s heritage and cannot hold a steady job. They have several children together, but George’s behavior does not improve. Eventually, George begins to physically abuse Latisha.
Eli (Lionel and Latisha’s uncle) has returned to Blossom to live in the cabin in which he was born. Eli is in the middle of a long legal standoff with the developers of a large dam. The dam is holding back a river and is designed to create valuable beachfront real estate around it. Sifton, who works for the developers, comes to Eli on a daily basis to try to convince him to change his mind. Eli recalls his...