Thomas King 1943-
American-born Canadian novelist, short story writer, editor, screenwriter, and children's writer.
The following entry presents an overview of King's career through 2001. See also Thomas King Criticism (Volume 89).
Typically classified as a writer of Native Canadian fiction, King is known for such works as Medicine River (1990) and Green Grass, Running Water (1993) in which he uses humor to address the marginalization of Amerindians. His works delineate pan-Indian concerns and histories and attempt to abolish common stereotypes about Native North Americans. King's fiction challenges commonly acknowledged conceptions of geographical, racial, and cultural borders, fusing Native American and European myths and history.
Born in Sacramento, California, on April 24, 1943, King is of Greek, German, and Cherokee descent. His father abandoned his family when King was a child. Although King visited his Cherokee relatives in Oklahoma as a youth, he was raised primarily among whites. After graduating from high school, King traveled abroad, eventually working as a photojournalist in New Zealand and Australia. During this period he began writing short stories. When he returned to the United States, King enrolled at California State University, where he received a B.A. and M.A. in English. He later received his Ph.D. in American studies and English from the University of Utah in 1986. King resumed writing while completing his doctoral work and teaching native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada. He began to spend time at a reservation while teaching at Lethbridge, and the local Blackfoot Indians eventually became the subject of his fiction. King is a Canadian citizen but lives in Minneapolis, where he chairs the Indian Studies Program at the University of Minnesota. Medicine River received the PEN/Josephine Miles Award and was nominated for a Commonwealth Writer's prize; it was adapted into a television movie and radio play in 1993, with King scripting both adaptations. A Coyote Columbus Story (1992) and Green Grass, Running Water were both nominated for Governor General's Awards. King has taught in both the U.S. and Canada and acknowledges that Natives are his primary audience. Many of King's works are set in Canada, but he questions attempts to define him solely as a Native Canadian writer: “There's only a problem in the sense that I am not originally from Canada, and the Cherokee aren't a Canadian tribe. Now that becomes a problem only if you recognize the particular political line which runs between Canada and the U.S. and if you agree with the assumptions that that line makes.”
The exclusion of Native Americans from white society, history, and culture is a prevalent theme in much of King's writing. His first novel, Medicine River, focuses on Will, a mixed-blood of Blackfoot descent. Returning to his hometown of Medicine River, Alberta, where he works as a photographer, Will must come to terms with the alienation he feels within his circle of family and friends as well as the stereotypes projected on—and at times perpetuated by—Native Americans. A cycle of vignettes and an intimate portrait of small-town life, Medicine River subverts misperceptions about Natives while including such traditional Native characters as the Coyote trickster figure. The Coyote persona, who has the power to both create and destroy, is prominently featured in A Coyote Columbus Story, a children's book relating the creation of the world and the “discovery” of the Americas by Christopher Columbus from a Native perspective. The coyote trickster is also present in Green Grass, Running Water. Incorporating shifting viewpoints and a convoluted, circular storyline, the story follows, in part, the actions of four ancient Indian spirits. Perceived by whites as insane and aged, these spirits have been confined to a mental institution from which they periodically escape in order to “fix” the world. During the course of the novel they strive to prevent an environmental catastrophe from occurring in the small Canadian town of Blossom. The novel also concerns several members of the Blackfoot nation who reside in Blossom, their interpersonal relationships, their attempts to make a living in the white world, and their ongoing debate over a proposal to build a hydroelectric dam in the region. Elements of irony and satire are central to Green Grass, Running Water—one character runs a highly profitable restaurant by claiming to sell “houndburgers” to white tourists. In another incident, the Indian spirits rewrite Hollywood history by colorizing old black-and-white Westerns and allowing the Indian “savages” to triumph over John Wayne and the United States Calvary. The short-story collection One Good Story, That One (1993) contains ten stories tied together through the Coyote figure. The title story relates an elderly Native's attempts to trick a group of anthropologists by trying to pass off a comic version of the Judeo-Christian creation myth as authentically Native. Juxtaposing Christian and Native religious imagery with references to popular culture, the narrator recalls the actions and motivations of the practical woman Evening, the dimwitted Ah-damn, and their angry, selfish god. King's highly symbolic Truth and Bright Water (1999) is narrated by a fifteen-year-old boy named Tecumseh, who lives on a reservation in Bright Water, Canada. Bright Water is across the river from Truth, a non-Native town on the American side of the river. Tecumseh's boss is Munroe Summer, who likes to be referred to as a “Famous Indian Artist” and is working to obliterate all colonial symbols from the community. In 2001 King published Coyote Sings to the Moon, a children's work again involving a Coyote figure. After the Coyote's singing is insulted by an Old Woman, Coyote tries to drive the Moon deep into a lake. King has additionally edited two anthologies of critical and creative works—The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives (1987) and All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction (1990)—that examine Canadian life, indigenous peoples, and their literatures.
King's body of work has been generally well received by critics. Many reviewers have noted his preoccupation with borders—between nations, cultures, and individuals—and his use of humor and irony in deconstructing these borders. Parker Duchemin has stated, “[King] is a surprisingly good-natured social satirist, and it is tempting to view him in the tradition of Stephen Leacock or U.S. humourist James Thurber.” Some commentators have asserted that the easygoing nature of King's criticism of non-Natives makes it too easy for the white reader to distance himself from the racist structures which discriminate against Indians. However, others have argued that it is this feature of King's work that makes it particularly accessible to white readers. Margery Fee and Jane Flick have stated that, “King's strategy for writing for an audience primarily composed of the uninformed is not to pander to its preconceptions or to produce explanations, but to entice, even trick this audience into finding out for themselves.” Reviewers have lauded King's economic and controlled language, as well as his unusual melding of both Indian and non-Indian references and traditions. Critics have noted the heavy influence of Okanagan writer Harry Robinson in King's fiction, especially in Green Grass, Running Water, one of King's most highly acclaimed works. Reviewing this work, Robert L. Berner has asserted that, “[w]e must regard the publication of Green Grass, Running Water as a major event, an important American novel which combines with remarkable ingenuity an impressive variety of narrative skills, a keen satiric sense, and a wide knowledge of traditional American Indian cultures, setting a standard for the future as the first major Indian novel which is unabashedly comic in its intentions.” King's works have been additionally praised for their inventive manipulation of plot and as attempts at historical revisionism.