Green Grass, Running Water

by Thomas King

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 537

Thomas King lives with a foot in two worlds, the Native American world that is part of his heritage and the world of the white society of which he is fundamentally a part despite his Cherokee lineage. He understands both worlds well. He writes in Green Grass, Running Water, as he did in his first novel, Medicine River (1990), with a greater sympathy for the underdog society than for the dominant society.

Green Grass, Running Water directs its social commentary to current topics, including the feminist cause. Alberta is a liberated woman, bright, well-educated, and financially independent. She wants motherhood but denies any necessary connection between motherhood and marriage. She is a nurturing sort, more drawn to Lionel than to Charlie because Lionel is the less successful of the two, the one who needs nurturing. This, however, does not make Alberta want to marry him.

Throughout the novel, white society transgresses upon the native culture in ways both small and large. The small transgressions occur in insensitive acts: for example, a white tourist happens upon the Sun Dance and begins photographing it. Even worse, George, who is married to Latisha, a successful, independent Native American, wants to photograph the Sun Dance and, in an abortive reunion with Latisha, makes slighting remarks about her culture—something that Eli’s white wife, Karen, never did.

In one heartbreaking vignette, King tells of how Alberta’s parents, Ada and Amos, drove south to the United States to participate in a sacred tribal dance with relatives. At the border, they encountered arrogant customs agents who forced them to unpack their car. When the agents discovered their tribal costumes, they spread them on the asphalt and then, because the costumes were decorated with eagle feathers, confiscated them.

After considerable negotiation, the costumes were returned in plastic garbage bags with the feathers broken. The return of the costumes could not make amends for what had happened. The initial insult at the border, which results in Amos’s arrest, was horrible. To have the costumes defiled as they were was an added insult. The greatest insult, however, was that the border agents robbed Alberta’s parents of their dignity.

Among the larger affronts the Blackfoots suffered from white society was the building of the dam and its plans to operate a power plant and develop a recreational area on tribal land. Eli Stands Alone has left his people and gone to Toronto, seemingly forsaking his forebears. On the surface, he has repudiated his heritage.

King shows, however, that in the end, Eli cannot forsake his past. He returns to the house his mother built and, using knowledge and self-confidence he gained in the white world, he obstructs the operation of the dam for years. He keeps the project in limbo until, through the intervention of the trickster, nature reclaims the project.

In this novel, a symbiosis exists between the two societies King depicts. Among the ills the natives face is that their young people leave the reserve (King’s preferred term for a reservation) and go out into the broader world beyond. They never really leave home, however, and when they return, they do so better equipped to defeat those who would suppress native culture.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1222

The theme that drives most of the action in Green Grass, Running Water is the conflict between Native American culture and White culture. King establishes this most potently in the fantastical back stories of the four old Native American men. In each story, a character from the Native American tradition interacts with a Biblical figure and then a character from White literature or film. Tellingly, each of the four old Native Americans eventually adopts a name from these White works. The four characters come from works by white writers for white audiences that feature Native American characters: Robinson Crusoe from the eponymous novel by Daniel Defoe, Ishmael from Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, Hawkeye from James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, and The Lone Ranger, the titular hero of radio and television serials.

King furthers this theme of cultural conflict by demonstrating the power that popular culture has in shaping one society’s perception of another. In addition to the names of the four Native American elders, King utilizes the American Western as a means of exploring the White world’s misconception of Native Americans. Throughout King’s novel, characters read novels or watch films that feature stereotypical Cowboys-versus-Indians plots. In the middle of the novel, all of the major characters find themselves watching an old black-and-white western starring John Wayne. Charlie’s father, Portland, has a minor featured role as an Indian chief, and the four Native American elders also appear in it unexpectedly. King then upends this stereotype when Bill Bursum plays the video the next day and the ending is mysteriously changed to show the Native Americans victorious.

King explores the cultural conflict in religious terms by satirizing the Biblical figures. In doing so, King points out the hypocrisy in the White community’s view of Native American spirituality as primitive. When Changing Woman finds herself on Noah’s Ark, the ship is overrun with animal droppings. In addition, Noah is presented as having a substantial libido and Changing Woman must outrun him. Later, Young Man Walking on Water (who is clearly supposed to be Jesus Christ) is unable to calm the storm to protect the sailors until Old Woman sings to the waves to calm them. By poking fun at stories from the Christian tradition, King ironically points out the universality faith. Regardless of the culture, each faith tradition has deities and origin stories.

Satire also reinforces the theme of cultural divide in the scenes set in Latisha’s diner, The Dead Dog Café. Even the restaurant’s namesake underscores the humor in the conflict between White and Native American cultures. Part of the selling point of Latisha’s café is the illusion that the patrons are eating dog meat as a way of experiencing authentic Native American culture. In reality, the meat served is beef because consuming dogs as food is in no way part of Blackfoot dietary practices. The white tourists who filter through the cafe (both American and Canadian) are drawn in broad strokes and quickly display their ignorance of Native American culture by their enthrallment with its perceived exoticness.

Another important motif in the novel is water. Title aside, water acts as a powerful force that serves multiple purposes in the story. Water is repeatedly associated with creation as all of the origin stories of the Native American elders begin with the same phrase: “In the beginning, there was nothing. Just the water.” In each of the origin stories, water carries the Native American elders into their encounters with both the Biblical characters and their eventual namesakes.

Water also functions as a supernatural force in the story. Babo, Alberta, Dr. Hovaugh, and Charlie all lose their cars and find them replaced with large puddles of water. Since Charlie’s rental car is actually Babo’s car from the United States, King establishes that the water is able to move cars from place to place. This is cemented by the cars’ last appearance when they are transported to the river being held back by the dam.

Water is also used to represent cleansing and renewal. In the middle of the novel, Alberta dreams of a having a child and soaking with her in the tub. As the novel nears its climax, the town of Blossom is soaked in a torrential downpour. Lionel is particularly affected by the storm because he gets caught in the storm while walking to work. Tellingly, Lionel is planning two completely revamp his life when the rainfall begin. The most significant use of water as a renewing force comes at the story’s climax, when the faulty dam breaks after repeated battering by the three cars. The dam break restores the natural flow of the river, but destroys the log cabin belonging to Eli’s family. Despite losing Eli in the dam break, his sister, Norma, is determined to rebuild the family homestead with the help of Lionel and Alberta.

Another theme pervading Green Grass, Running Water is the lack of communication. King develops this by having most of the major characters engage in conversations in which they do not directly respond to the person with whom they are speaking. This pattern is established in the early conversations between Lionel and his aunt, Norma, when she repeatedly prods him about his dead-end life. Instead of addressing these questions and statements, Lionel talks about something else. The device of parallel conversations is used again when Sergeant Cereno interrogates Babo Jones, a female janitor. While Sergeant Cereno tries to ask direct questions about the escape of the Native American elders, Babo repeatedly initiates tangential conversations about her life and past.

King reinforces the isolation experienced by many of the characters through their inability to communicate with each other. Lionel is not only unable to articulate himself to Norma, but to Alberta as well; Charlie and his father are unable to reconcile their different perceptions of life in Hollywood; and Eli suffers the most for his inability to express himself. Eli’s back story reveals how his inability to communicate hindered his relationship with Karen. Eli’s reluctance to take Karen to the Sun Dance and his inability to take her back for a return visit are inextricably linked to his inability to communicate. Karen is warmly accepted at the Sun Dance and equally embraces the experience herself, in part because it reveals things about Eli that he is unwilling to disclose about himself. When Karen dies before they can return to the Sun Dance, Eli loses the chance to explain his withholding of his feelings.

Alberta’s communication problems manifest themselves very differently from those of Eli. Alberta is largely laconic through most of the story in an effort to keep the people around her at arm’s length; however, when she returns to Blossom, she is confronted with the issues she has tried to ignore. As a result, she opens herself up unexpectedly to a female police officer and Latisha. While both are sympathetic, neither is in a position to solve Alberta’s problems. Like many of the characters in Green Grass, Running Water, Alberta learns she must talk and listen to the important people in her life. King uses the issue of communication to reinforce character change; as the main characters become more communicative, they are also able to take action.

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