Critical Context

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Green Grass, Running Water was written at a time when considerable attention was being paid to Native American history. Advances in knowledge have resulted in considerable revisions of American history, which had largely been written from the perspective of a white establishment dominated by people with Western European outlooks.

The Columbus quincentenary in 1992 became, rather than a celebration of the discovery of the New World, a year of strident questioning. People asked such questions as, “How does one discover a world that has already been settled for centuries and that has a culture in many ways as advanced as that in Europe?” The Inca, the Aztec, and the Mayan Indians were exceptionally advanced in mathematics and such related areas of physics as astronomy. In the fields of art and architecture, these cultures had produced works of great sophistication.

Another prominent Native American novelist, Gerald Vizenor, addressed such questions in Bearheart: The Heirship Chronicles (1990) and The Heirs of Columbus (1991); he, like King, emphasized the trickster tradition. King is artistically dependent on this tradition in Green Grass, Running Water, using it to bring about the dual resolution of his novel.

King addresses a number of compelling social concerns in this novel. He presents independent, self-possessed women quite capable of functioning productively without men. Alberta Frank and Latisha Morningstar are prototypical modern women. They are too busy to march in parades or burn bras in public protests, but they forge ahead as contributing members of society, with minds of their own. They have no qualms about defying convention. They fit well into the context of women’s liberation.

King is also concerned with the contemporary problem of the flight of young Native Americans to cities. He seems even more concerned, however, about what happens to someone like Lionel, who remains in Blossom in a dead-end job, accepting his fate all too willingly even though he has for two decades harbored vague, at times unrealistic, plans for continuing his education.