Thomas King 1943–
American-Canadian novelist, short story writer, editor, scriptwriter, and author of children's books.
The following entry provides an overview of King's career through 1995.
Typically classified as a writer of Native-Canadian fiction, King is known for works in which he addresses the marginalization of Amerindians, delineates "pan-Indian" concerns and histories, and attempts to abolish common stereotypes about Native Americans.
Born in Sacramento, California, King is of Greek, German, and Native-American descent. His father, of Cherokee origins, abandoned the family when King was a child. Although King visited his Cherokee relatives in Oklahoma as a youth, he was primarily raised white and the Natives in his works are typically of Blackfoot descent. After graduating from high school, King traveled abroad, eventually working as a photojournalist in New Zealand and Australia. During this time he began writing, but he has described these early attempts as "real pukey stuff." Returning to the United States, King entered college, earning a B.A. and M.A. in English from California State University in the early 1970s and a Ph.D. in American Studies and English in 1986 from the University of Utah. He resumed writing while doing doctoral work and teaching in Alberta, Canada. A citizen of Canada and the United States, King has taught in both countries and acknowledges that Natives are his primary audience. Many of his 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. For example, King's first novel, Medicine River (1990), 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 tries to subvert misperceptions about Natives while including such traditional Native characters as the coyote trickster figure. The coyote persona, which has the power to create and destroy, is also prominently featured in A Coyote Columbus Story (1992), a children's book that relates the creation of the world and the "discovery" of the Americas by Christopher Columbus from a Native perspective, and in King's 1993 novel, Green Grass, Running Water. Incorporating shifting viewpoints and a convoluted, circular storyline, Green Grass, Running Water 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; in this instance, they hope 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. Commentators frequently note that King's skill as a humorist and satirist is particularly evident in this work. For example, one character runs a highly profitable restaurant by claiming to sell "houndburgers" to white tourists. In another instance, 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. Irony, colonization, assimilation, and the oral tradition are also central to King's 1993 short story collection, One Good Story, That One, which has been praised for its use of Indian dialect. The critically acclaimed title story, for example, relates an elderly Native's attempts to hoodwink 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 has additionally edited anthologies of critical and creative works dealing with Canadians, indigenous peoples, and their literatures.
King's work has been favorably received by critics. He won a Governor General's award for A Coyote Columbus Story and a PEN/Josephine Miles Award for Medicine River, which was also nominated for the Commonwealth Writer's Prize. His novels and short stories are known for their humor and irony, evocation of place, and focus on Native society and culture. His works are additionally praised for their inventive manipulation of plot and as attempts at historical revisionism.