Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 304
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.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1547
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 romance with Karen, who is fascinated by his culture despite his unwillingness to discuss it. She eventually convinces him to take her home for the Sun Dance and they are warmly welcomed by his family and friends. She has an amazing experience and cannot wait to return.
Charlie’s jealousy of Alberta’s interest in Lionel leads him to follow her to Blossom. He cannot understand why Alberta would be interested in Lionel when Charlie is a successful lawyer who gave up the electronics-store job that Lionel now has. Charlie’s firm also represents the interests of the land developers, and his heritage and connections to the area played a significant role in his getting his job. When he arrives in town, he is surprised when his rental car is a beat-up Pinto (which is actually Babo’s missing car). He returns to Blossom and checks into the motel, flashing back to his troubled relationship with his father, Portland. Portland starred in Westerns as a stereotypical Native American character (so stereotypical that he had to wear a prosthetic to make his nose appear bigger). When Portland’s wife becomes pregnant, he leaves Hollywood for Canada to raise his family. When his wife dies years later, Portland takes the teenaged Charlie back to Hollywood. Unfortunately, times have changed and Portland struggles to find work, ultimately taking a job portraying a “savage” character in a strip club act. Disillusioned, Charlie returns home leaving his father behind.
As Alberta checks in to the motel, she recalls her childhood with an alcoholic father. She also remembers her attempts at artificial insemination, which are thwarted because she is not married. Meanwhile, Lionel drives the old Native Americans to Blossom and Norma tells them he needs help. Lionel denies this, despite recalling his romantic difficulties with Alberta. Lionel drops off the old men in town and takes his aunt home. As all of the characters settle in for the night, they all find themselves watching a John Wayne western on television. Dr. Hovaugh notices the four Native American elders in the film, while Charlie recognizes his father in a small role. The film ends with Wayne and his white co-stars victorious over the Indians.
In Part Three, both Charlie and Alberta discover that their cars have been stolen. When Charlie reports his, the rental company informs him that he never took the rental car, which is still parked in their lot. Alberta files a report at the police station and confides some of her personal struggles to a female police officer – including the exhaustion and morning sickness she has recently developed.
Dr. Hovaugh, with Babo Jones in tow, travels from the United States to Blossom in search of the four elderly Native Americans. Eli reflects further on his relationship with Karen, who developed cancer. She made Eli promise to take her back to the Sun Dance before she died. Latisha recalls the end of her marriage when George decided to become a stay-at-home father. Within two weeks, she came home to find a long, poetic letter explaining his desertion. He continues to write Latisha regularly, and at first she read the letters to her coworkers for comic value. At the time George left, Latisha was pregnant with her third child and has since raised the trio on her own.
Lionel awakens, determined to turn over a new leaf, improve his life, and finally win over Alberta. He walks to work, but gets caught in a rainstorm. Eventually, he arrives to find his boss, Bill Bursum, the four Native American elders, his uncle, Eli, and his cousin, Charlie. Bursum, who is proud of his new television display, plays a tape of the western that everyone was watching the previous evening. This time, however, the ending is mysteriously changed so that the Indians are victorious over the cowboys.
Part Four brings most of the main characters to the Sun Dance. Eli convinces Lionel to go and counsels his nephew on his life’s path. Eli admits that Karen recovered from her illness only to die in an automobile accident without ever returning to the Sun Dance. Latisha brings and increasingly ill-feeling Alberta, who tries to rest upon arrival. Latisha runs into George, who has returned and wants to take pictures of the Sun Dance. Lionel and Eli come to her aid, and Lionel stands up to George. The community gathers around and George is removed from the grounds.
Dr. Hovaugh and Babo pursue the Native American elders by taking a bus tour and find themselves alongside the dam project. Suddenly, three cars appear in the water (Dr. Hovaugh’s car, Babo’s car, and Alberta’s car) and rush towards the dam. The water pounds the cars against the dam and it eventually breaks, letting the river flow again.
In the denouement, Norma, Alberta, Lionel, Latisha, and Charlie begin to rebuild the log cabin. When the dam broke, the cabin was destroyed and Eli was killed. Charlie is heading to Los Angeles to reunite with his father, while Alberta and Lionel take tentative steps towards a permanent relationship. Back at the hospital, Dr. Hovaugh is surprised to find that the Native American elders have spontaneously returned. The novel closes with the Narrator and Coyote still in dialogue, acknowledging that everything begins with water.