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...
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