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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.
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The Native in Literature: Canadian and Comparative Perspectives [editor, with Cheryl Calver and Helen Hoy] (essays) 1987
All My Relations: An Anthology of Contemporary Canadian Native Fiction [editor] (short stories) 1990
∗Medicine River (novel) 1990
A Coyote Columbus Story (children's book) 1992
Green Grass, Running Water (novel) 1993
One Good Story, That One (short stories) 1993
∗King also wrote the scripts for the 1993 radio and television adaptations of this work.
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SOURCE: A review of The Native in Literature, in Choice, Vol. 26, No. 3, November, 1988, p. 500.
[Evers is an American critic and educator. In the following, he offers a positive assessment of The Native in Literature.]
The editors [of The Native in Literature] say this is the first time the topic has been addressed in a "Canadian" context. For that reason alone, this collection provides a needed complement to such "American" but US-bound classics as Roy Harvey Pearce's Savagism and Civilization (1953) and Leslie Fiedler's The Return of the Vanishing American. The volume is a step toward a more comprehensive, hemispheric consideration of the subject that will include work inspired/written/published north, south, and within the boundaries of the continental US, and work written in the many languages of the continent as well as English. As do many other conference collections, this volume addresses diverse subjects within what seems a very narrow theme. The quality of the essays spans the usual range: the embarrassingly uninformed and mundane to the illuminating and riveting, with a lot of competent work in between. The essays by Kate Vangen, Barbara Godard, Robin McGrath, and Jarold Ramsey are outstanding, and make the collection a necessary purchase for all colleges with undergraduate and/or graduate programs in "American" literature.
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SOURCE: "A Double-Bladed Knife: Subversive Laughter in Two Stories by Thomas King," in Canadian Literature, Nos. 124-25, Spring-Summer, 1990, pp. 243-50.
[Atwood is a Canadian novelist, poet, short story writer, critic, and author of children's books. In the following essay, she offers an analysis of the short stories "Joe the Painter and the Deer Island Massacre" and "One Good Story, That One," commenting on King's use of irony and humor.]
Once upon a time long ago, in 1972 to be exact, I wrote a book called Survival, which was about Canadian literature; an eccentric subject in those days, when many denied there was any. In this book, there was a chapter entitled "First People: Indians and Eskimos as Symbols." What this chapter examined was the uses made by non-Native writers of Native characters and motifs, over the centuries and for their own purposes. This chapter did not examine poetry and fiction written by Native writers in English, for the simple reason that I could not at that time find any; although I was able to recommend a small list of nonfiction titles. The closest thing to "imaginative" writing by Natives were "translations" of Native myths and poetry, which might turn up at the beginnings of anthologies, or be offered as a species of indigenous fairy tale in grade-school readers. (Why did I overlook Pauline Johnson? Perhaps because, being half-white, she somehow didn't rate as the real thing, even among Natives; although she is undergoing reclamation today.)
The figures in the stories and poems I analyzed ran the gamut. There were Indians and Eskimos seen as closer to Nature and therefore more noble, as closer to Nature and therefore less noble, as savage victimizers of whites and as victims of savage whites. There was a strong tendency among younger writers to claim Natives as kin, or as their "true" ancestors (which may have something to it, since all people on earth are descended from hunter-gatherer societies). There were a lot of adjectives.
Lacking among them was funny. Savage irony and morbid humour did sometimes enter the picture as a kind of self-flagellation device for whites, but on the whole Natives were treated by almost everyone with the utmost gravity, as if they were either too awe-inspiring as blood-curdling savages or too sacrosanct in their status of holy victim to allow of any comic reactions either to them or by them. Furthermore, nobody ever seems to have asked them what if anything they found funny. The Native as presented in non-Native writing was singularly lacking in a sense of humour; sort of like the "good" woman of Victorian fiction, who acquired at the hands of male writers the same kind of tragic-eyed, long-suffering solemnity.
Things are changing. Natives are now writing fiction, poetry and plays, and some of the literature being produced by them is both vulgar and hilarious. A good many stereotypes are hitting the dust, a few sensibilities are in the process of being outraged. The comfortable thing about a people who do not have a literary voice, or at least not one you can hear or understand, is that you never have to listen to what they are saying about you. Men found it very disconcerting when women started writing the truth about the kinds of things women say about them behind their backs. In particular, they did not appreciate having the more trivial of their human foibles revealed, nor did they appreciate being laughed at. Nobody does, really. But when I heard that the nickname given to a certain priest by the Indians was "Father Crotchface," because of his beard, it caused me to reflect. For instance, Father Crotchface and His Brethren would have altogether a different ring to it, no? [Atwood is alluding to Brebeuf and His Brethren by E. J. Pratt.]
Recently I read, in separate "little" magazines, two outstanding stories by the same author, Thomas King. They seem to me to be "perfect" stories—by which I mean that as narrations they are exquisitely timed, that everything in them appears to be there by right, and that there is nothing you would want to change or edit out. Another way of saying this is that they are beautifully written. But apart from these aesthetic qualities, which they share with other stories, they impressed me in quite different ways.
They ambush the reader. They get the knife in, not by whacking you over the head with their own moral righteousness, but by being funny. Humour can be aggressive and oppressive, as in keep-'em-in-their-place sexist and racist jokes. But it can also be a subversive weapon, as it has often been for people who find themselves in a fairly tight spot without other, more physical, weapons.
As these two stories have not yet appeared in a collection (although they will soon), you'll forgive me for summarizing.
The first one I'd like to discuss is called "Joe The Painter and the Deer Island Massacre." It's set in a small coastal town north of San Francisco. The narrator is an Indian man; the subject of his narration is a white man called "Joe the Painter." Nobody in the town except the narrator really likes Joe. He's loud and overly friendly, and has the disconcerting habit of blowing his nose into the gutter, one nostril at a time: "Whenever he felt a clog in his 'breathing-trap,' as he called it, he'd step to the curb, lean over so as not to get his shoes dirty, hold one nostril shut with his thumb, snort, and blow out the other one." But the thing that really gets people about Joe is his honesty. He knows everyone's dirty-underwear business, and announces it at the top of his lungs in the form of friendly questions, such as, "'Howdy, Mrs. Secord, how's the girls? Looks like you been living off pudding. Say, you pregnant again?'" or, "'Howdy, Connie, how's the boil doing?'"
The action gets going when Joe finds out that the town is planning to have a pageant contest in celebration of its own centennial, and that there's some grant money available to those who wish to get up a pageant. Joe is overflowing with civic spirit, and decides to enter the contest. His entry is to be about the town's founder, one Matthew Larson, and a long-ago incident called "The Deer Island Massacre," involving a local band of Indians. Joe describes the event as follows: "'Yes, a massacre. Larson's two brothers were killed, but Larson survived and built the town. That's how this place was started. Make a good pageant, huh?'"
At this point the narrator—whom we know only as "Chief," because that's what Joe calls him—assumes that the massacre is the usual movie kind, that is, instigated by treacherous Indians, with heavy losses but with eventual triumph for the whites. He's been asked by Joe to recruit the Indians for this affair, but he isn't so sure his friends and relations will like the idea. However, he's overwhelmed by Joe: "'What's to like? It's all history. You can't muck around with history. It ain't always the way we'd like it to be, but there it is. Can't change it.'"
Before the pageant, the Indians congregate on Deer Island—"'Just like the old days,'" as the narrator's father says—and begin rehearsing. Joe decides they don't look enough like Indians, and rounds up some wigs and some black yarn braids from the town. The day for the pageant arrives, and Joe introduces it in proper fashion. It is being presented, he says, by the Native Son Players. The narrator likes this. "Damn, that Joe was creative! Sounded professional," he thinks. (We, the readers, like it because it's a really vicious touch, and because it twists on a couple of levels. It's the kind of kitschy phrasing Joe would come up with; it plays on "Native"; and these are the Native Sons, although white Americans have often appropriated the designation for themselves alone.)
The first act recounts the arrival of Larson, played by Joe, who is greeted by Redbird, played by the narrator. The second act dramatizes the growing friction between Indians and whites as the latter encroach on Deer Island and want to build things on it. The third is the massacre itself, and here is where we all get a jolt, audience and readers alike—because the massacre is not perpetrated by the Indians. It's done by the whites, sneaking up in the dead of night and butchering the Indians as they lie asleep. The Indians playing the whites open fire, making Bang bang noises. The Indians playing the Indians leap about, slapping little plastic restaurant ketchup packets on themselves for blood. "'Protect the women and children,'" cries Redbird—a line straight from the wagon side of many a Western-movie Indian-and-wagon-train sequence. The Indian actors thoroughly enjoy themselves. Soon they are all lying "dead," while flies buzz around the ketchup and Joe soliloquizes over their bodies: "'I abhor the taking of a human life, but civilization needs a strong arm to open the frontier. Farewell, Redman. Know that from your bones will spring a new and stronger community forever.'"
The audience is paralyzed by Joe's pageant. This is not what they had in mind at all! It seems, somehow, to be in the most outrageous bad taste. It has mentioned—as is Joe's habit—something that has been deemed unmentionable. And it does so with a childlike straightforwardness and honesty that is infuriating. (As the town bartender has said earlier, "'Honesty makes most people nervous.'") The town is scandalized. But, after all, what has Joe done? All he has done is to re-enact history, the part of it that is not usually celebrated; and this has called the notion of "history" itself into question.
Joe's pageant does not win. It is termed "inappropriate" by the mayor. The pageant that does win—about the founding of the first city council—is entirely "appropriate," and entirely boring. "History," the history we choose to recount, is what we find "appropriate." The Indians go home, saying that if Joe ever needs some Indians again just give them a call.
The story ends where it begins: the narrator is still the only person in town who likes Joe.
Well now, we say. What are we to make of this apparently artless but secretly designing story? And why are we left sitting, like the audience, with our mouths open? Why do we feel so sandbagged? And—because he's never told us—just why does the narrator like Joe?
I think the answers will be somewhat different, depending on—for instance—whether the reader is a white person or a Native person. But I assume that the narrator likes Joe for a couple of reasons. First, Joe is entirely although tactlessly honest, and for this reason he is the only white in the town who can look back at the town's founding, see that it was based on the ruthless massacre of the earlier incumbents, and say it out loud. Second, Joe is not sentimental over this. He does not romanticize the slaughtered Indians, or weep crocodile tears over them now that they are no longer the main competition. He deals with history in the same practical, unself-conscious way he blows his nose. He doesn't feel any sanctimonious guilt, either. He lays the actions out and lets them speak for themselves.
Third, Joe has a high opinion of the narrator. The title "Chief" is not a joke for him. He knows the narrator is not a Chief, but he thinks of him as one anyway. Joe and the "Chief" each possess qualities that the other one values.
Read in the light of the long North American tradition of Indians-as-characters-in-white-fiction, this wonderfully satiric but deadpan story could be seen as a kind of parody-in-miniature of Fenimore Cooper's Leatherstocking tales, or of the Lone Ranger and Tonto—the fearless white leader with a penchant for straight speaking and for seeing justice done, the loyal Indian sidekick who comes up with the manpower and the sound effects. It would not work nearly so well as ambush if our minds had not already been lulled into somnolence by a great deal of storytelling in which things were seen far otherwise.
The second story gives us an even more radical departure from the expected. It's called "One Good Story, That One," and in it Thomas King invents, not just a new slant on an old story, but a new kind of narrative voice. The "Chief" in "Joe The Painter and the Deer Island Massacre" lived in a white-folks' town and was familiar with its vocabulary and ways. Not so the narrator of "One Good Story," an older Indian who appears to spend most of his time in the Canadian bush, although he has been to Yellowknife. It's clear from the outset that English is far from being either his mother-tongue or his language of first choice. It's more like a language of last resort. However, as he uses it to tell his story, it becomes strangely eloquent. King employs this created, truncated voice to suggest, among other things, the pacing of a Native narrator. This storyteller will take his time, will repeat himself, sometimes for emphasis, sometimes for rhythm, sometimes as a delaying tactic, sometimes to get things straight.
His story is about telling a story, and about the kinds of stories that are expected of him, and about the kinds that have been told to him; it's also a story about refusing to tell a story, but we don't know that until the end of the story.
He is minding his own business at his "summer place" when his friend Napaio arrives with three white men:
Three men come to my summer place, also my friend Napaio. Pretty loud talkers, those ones. One is big. I tell him maybe looks like Big Joe. Maybe not.
They come and Napaio too. Bring greetings, how are you, many nice things they bring to says. Three.
Too bad, those.
What do these three want? It turns out they are anthropologists, and they want a story. At first the narrator tries to put them off with stories about people he knows: Jimmy who runs the store, Billy Frank and the dead-river pig. But this will not do.
Those ones like old story, says my friend, maybe how the world was put together. Good Indian story like that, Napaio says. Those ones have tape recorders, he says.
Okay, I says.
Have some tea.
Once upon a time.
Those stories start like that, pretty much, those ones, start on time.
The story he proceeds to relate is not what the anthropologists were looking for at all. Instead it is a hilarious version of the Book of Genesis, a white-folk story played back to them in an Indian key, with the narrator's own commentary.
"There was nothing," he begins. "Pretty hard to believe that, maybe." Enter the creator. "Only one person walk around. Call him god." God gets tired of walking around, so he begins to create. "Maybe that one says, we will get some stars. So he does. And then he says, maybe we should get a moon. So, they get one of them too. Someone writes all this down, I don't know. Lots of things left to get."
The narrator launches into a long list of things god now "gets," a list which he narrates both in his own language and in English, and which includes several animals, a flint, a television set and a "grocery story." God then creates the Garden of "Evening," and two human beings, Evening herself—the garden is clearly hers—and a man, "Ahdamn." "Ah-damn and Evening real happy, those ones. No clothes, those, you know. Ha, Ha, Ha, Ha. But they pretty dumb, then. New, you know."
Evening discovers the famous tree, which has a lot of things growing on it, such as potatoes, pumpkins and corn. It also has some "mee-so," apples. Evening has it in mind to eat some of them, but "that one, god" re-enters the picture. He has a bad temper and shouts, and is compared by the narrator to a man called Harley James who used to beat up his wife. "God" orders Evening to leave the apples alone. He is selfish, and will not share.
However, Evening eats an apple, and being a good woman, takes some to share with Ah-damn. The latter is busy writing down the names of the animals as they parade by. "Pretty boring that," says the narrator. Writing down does not interest him.
Again, we get a long list of the animals, in two languages. But now the story goes even further off the biblical beaten track, because Coyote comes by a lot of times, in different disguises. "Gets dressed up, fool around."
And now the narrator shifts entirely into his own language, which we paleface readers can't follow at all. He even tells a joke, which is presumably about Coyote, but how are we to know? What kind of a story is this anyway? Well, it's changing into a story about the coyote. "Tricky one, that coyote. Walks in circles. Sneaky."
Evening recognizes immediately, from the tracks on the floor, that the coyote has been around more than once. But she feeds Ah-damn anyway, dumb bunny that he is, like "white man." She herself is pointedly identified as an Indian woman, which accounts for her intelligence.
God comes along and is cheesed off because the apples have been eaten. Evening tells him to "calm down, watch some television," but god wants to kick Evening and Ahdamn out of the garden, "go somewhere else. Just like Indian today."
Evening says that's fine with her, there's lots of other good places around, but Ah-damn lies about how many apples he ate, and whines as well. It avails him nothing and he gets thrown out, "'right on those rocks. Ouch, ouch, ouch, that one says.'" Evening has to come back and fix him up.
What about the snake? He's been forgotten by the narrator, but is stuck back in at the end. He's in the tree along with the apples, but there's not much to tell about him. The reason he hisses is that Evening stuck an apple in his mouth for trying to get too friendly.
The narrator's story ends with Ah-damn and Evening coming "out here" and having a bunch of kids. "That's all. It is ended."
But Thomas King's story ends another way. The white anthropologists pack up, none too pleased but putting a good face on it. "'All of those ones smile. Nod their head around. Look out window. Make happy noises. Say goodbyes, see you later. Leave pretty quick.'" The narrator's last gloss is, "I clean up all the coyote tracks on the floor.'"
If the narrator has a "good Indian story" to tell, he's kept it to himself. He certainly isn't going to tell it to the white anthropologists, who are seen as sneaky coyotes, mischief-makers, indulging in disguises and fooling around. Instead he's fed them one of their own stories back, but he's changed the moral. No secondary creation of Eve from a rib, no original sin, no temptation by Satan, no guilt, no "sweat of your brow" curse. The bad behaviour displayed is displayed by "god," who is greedy, selfish, loudmouthed and violent. Adam is stupid, and Eve, who is generous, level-headed, peace-loving and nurturing, comes out the hero of the story. In the course of his tale, the Indian narrator is able to convey to the whites more or less what he thinks of white behaviour in general. Nor can they do anything about it, as this is a situation they themselves have sought out—for their own benefit, since, we assume, they wish to use the Indian's story as "material"—and the etiquette of storytelling prevents them from intervening in the story to protest either its form or its content.
"One Good Story" could be seen as a variant of the Wise Peasant motif, or "putting one over on the city slicker" by pretending to be a lot dumber than you really are; although, in this case, the city slicker category includes any white reader. We feel "taken" by the story, in several ways: we get taken in by it, because this narrative voice has considerable charm and straight-faced subtlety; but we also get taken for a ride, just as the three anthropologists are. Perhaps we have been taken for even more of a ride than we realize. How do we know what all those Indian words really mean? We don't, and that is very much one of the points. The narrator himself doesn't know what "Saint Merry" means. Tit for tat. Another tit for tat is that we are forced to experience first hand how it must feel to have your own religious stories retold in a version that neither "understands" nor particularly reverences them. The biblical Fall of Man has seldom been recounted with such insouciance.
At the same time, and in the midst of our cross-cultural nervousness, we sympathize with the narrator rather than the anthropologists, just as, in "Joe The Painter," we have taken the side of the odd men out, Joe and the "Chief," as against the conventional townspeople. Thomas King knows exactly what he's doing.
Both of these stories are about Indians who are expected to "play Indian," to enact some white man's version of themselves, to serve a symbolic agenda other than their own. Both narrators, in their own ways, refuse: the first by participating in a farcical pageant that undermines the whole "How-the-West-Was-Won" myth, the second by withholding his authentic "Indian" tales and hilariously subverting a central and sacrosanct "white" story.
What other inventive twists of narrative and alarming shifts of viewpoint are in store for us from this author? Time, which begins all stories, will tell.
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SOURCE: "Dad Was with the Rodeo," in The New York Times, September 23, 1990, p. 29.
[Butler is an American novelist, short story writer, and poet. In the review below, he provides a favorable assessment of Medicine River.]
We may presume that Thomas King, who is Cherokee, Greek and German and teaches American studies at the University of Minnesota, knows his territory. His first novel, Medicine River, is a nice book, in the older sense of the word "nice": economical, precise, and elegant.
Medicine River would appear to be a charming and low-key tale, dependent for its effects on the reader's gradually building affection for a set of engaging if generally diffident main characters.
Will, the narrator, is half Blackfoot and a photographer in Medicine River, a small town on the edge of a Blackfoot reserve in Alberta, Canada. He is one of two sons of a spirited Blackfoot woman and a charming but ne'er-do-well rodeo rider, both now dead. He cannot live on the reserve itself, since he is not full Blackfoot. His brother is kept offstage traveling the world, except for flashbacks. His father was never home during Will's youth, and his mother refused to talk about the man.
The absence of his father, it becomes clear, is the great condition of Will's life, and it has made him profoundly detached and passive. What is his last name? His mother was named, beautifully, Rose Horse Capture. Naming is important in the interconnected stories, and yet the narrator withholds his own patronymic, allowing us only to consider the floating ironies in the way his friends address him: "Will."
Into this vacuum of desire comes Harlen Bigbear, a sort of concerned and mothering trickster, not just for Will, but for all the Native North American characters. Will affects an amused tolerance for Harlen's continual whirl of matchmakings, promotional ideas, reconciliations, schemes and excursions, but Harlen is the primary agent of change in the book and Will is, in fact, completely dependent on him. (It will develop that Harlen was directly responsible for Will's move from the cold and alien Edmonton, where his mother had taken her young family, back to Medicine River.)
When we first meet Harlen, he has come across a packet of letters Will's father wrote to his mother, the same packet, we learn in flashbacks, that she once became furious with her son for discovering and reading.
About the second thing that Harlen does is persuade Will to become a center for an all-Indian basketball team that Harlen has, according to Harlen, been finagled into coaching. He manages this in typically oblique fashion, showing up at Will's studio with a blue basketball jersey pulled over his plaid jacket and carrying a brown paper grocery bag.
"So, what's in the bag?" Will says.
"Your uniform, Will," Harlen responds.
About the third thing Harlen does is get Will involved with Louise Heavyman, the accountant who does their taxes. Louise is pregnant, but refuses to marry the father, claiming she wants a child without the bother of a husband. Harlen is touting Louise as a match, and although Will at first resists, he does go with her to the hospital, where he is mistaken by the staff for the father and where he more or less accidentally, looking at a sign, gives the child the name she will go by for the rest of her life: South Wing.
Most of the rest is subplot, myriad smaller and quicker stories worked out within these three larger rhythms. Will recalls an episode in which his mother and a friend are suspected of shoplifting. The basketball team is good, but not motivated—the players like to get drunk after a victory and then lose the next game—until a star player, Clyde Whiteman, ends up in jail and they win anyway. Will is seduced by a white woman, Susan Adamson, then cast away when she no longer needs him. A friend, January Pretty Weasel, may or may not be guilty of shooting her husband, another friend. Harlen's heretofore unmentioned brother comes to town and leads Will and Harlen into a dangerous dare. Louise buys a house and Will almost moves in.
Somewhere in mid-book the reader begins to understand the author's method. He counters stereotypes deftly without comment: against the widespread perception that Indians do not wish to have their photographs made, he places Will, the photographer. Harlen comes onstage exclaiming "Hey-uh" after every sentence, because he has heard Will Sampson doing it on television. The reader laughs with Will at the looping, interminable family stories offered by Indian characters, only to realize that the novel makes its points in just that same indirect manner.
But the finest of all Mr. King's many subtleties involves Will—for in his uncertain parentage and lack of drive, he is formed as an image for the state of all the Blackfeet. Native North American but disconnected from their heritage, citizens but not at home in the ambitions of the world, they drift with their fates. This most satisfying novel ends as it should, not in a clash of cymbals, but with the brushes laid quietly against the drums for a beat or so after the music ends.
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SOURCE: An interview in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 2, Autumn, 1990, pp. 62-76.
[An American-born critic and educator, Rooke has served as a member of the Canada Council's Advisory Panel on Writing and Publication. In the excerpted interview below, King discusses stylistic and thematic aspects of Medicine River, his identity and origins, and the recent focus on Native Americans in contemporary literature.]
[Rooke]: Let's start with some questions on Medicine River. Will, the narrator of Medicine River, is a Native photographer. And in the novel, a white woman suggests that's funny, given how Indians feel about photography: the fear, presumably, of one's soul being gobbled up by the camera. I wonder how charged that very glib remark was for you, and what you're saying about it. Is it important in some way to your conception of Will as photographer? Or was the woman's remark just a throwaway crack?
[King]: Not really. There are points in the book where I play off historical stereotypes—one of which is that Indians don't like to have their picture taken because it is going to capture their soul.
I remember that the woman seems very thick when she asks the question, and that there's no follow-up from Will.
There's no need for Will to answer the question. The question itself is enough to remind the reader of the range of stereotypes and clichés that go into the popular portrait of the Indian in Canada. Just by having her ask the question, and by having Will not answer it—well, that's pointed enough for me.
What I was thinking about is the parallel between Will as photographer and you as writer. In each case, the slightly detached Native artist is engaged partly in making a record of Native life—and that raises for me the question of whether in making Will a photographer you are taking the position that the writer can speak for others, and that he can speak in a way that doesn't take the soul away.
I'm not sure a writer should try to speak for others. I think you speak for yourself and if others like what you said then they can allow what you've said to speak for them if that's what they want. There's a scene in the book where Will is taking a picture of the community. He's outside the community, speaking for them, in a sense, with his camera. But before he takes the first picture, the community invites him into the picture, so that the community speaks for itself.
I thought that was important: the fact of his entering the photograph, which breaks down the authority position.
Yes. It also begins to break down the barriers that exist between Will and the community. But even more than that, I suppose, I'm questioning the position of the person who's making the choices, the decisions—whether it's the artist, whether it's the photographer, whether it's the community, whether it's the camera all by itself. In that one scene, the group photograph takes itself, as it were. There's no kind of outside agency that is setting the thing up. The camera is just aimed and then Will leaves it.
But this time the artist or the speaker is one of the community being spoken about, and so you can insert him into that.
Yes, more of the time when you see photographs of Indian people, of course, they are taken by non-Natives who come to the community, take a picture of it, and are never a part of the community. They simply vanish, and you have what they call the historical record. In Will's case, in the case of the artist, the important thing for me is that the artist is part of that community. He's an extension of it. He's behind the camera taking the picture, but he is also part of it. I think of myself as being a part of that community, even though I'm outside of it especially as I am writing the novel. But it's a tricky stance, I think, too. And I'm not sure if it's always successful.
The chapters in Medicine River also work as free standing stories, and I believe began that way. Have you come to think of the book as a novel now?
No, not yet. I try to think of it as a novel. You're right about the chapters. They did start out as free standing pieces, but before the first draft was finished, many of them became more dependent on each other, vignettes, if you will, knitted together by those long-running bits of narrative—the father's letters, the flashbacks to the mother, the flashbacks to Will's younger days, especially to the woman he knows in Toronto. All of those things give the book some sense of a novel, but I prefer to think of Medicine River as a cycle of stories.
It's quite a prominent form in Canadian literature generally, isn't it? Alice Munro, Margaret Laurence, Sandra Birdsell, George Szanto, and so on. It's nice to see another fine example of the story cycle in Medicine River. I like it as a form.
Yes, so do I. It's also a form that's very prominent in Native oral literature and probably that had something to do with my choosing it too.
I assume that you made some changes in the stories when you put them together as a kind of novel. But you chose not to delete certain repetitions. For example, when the characters are named again there is always a little introductory kind of thing that you wouldn't normally see in a novel. It's a pleasing effect, I think.
Actually, that kind of repetition was more prevalent in the earlier drafts where I would rename and re-introduce characters at the beginning of each chapter. That didn't bother me at all. But the editors at Penguin said, you know, we don't mind the fact that you keep introducing these people in different ways, but let's take off their last names, so it doesn't appear that they are being introduced for the first time, and maybe get rid of some of the information that is redundant. I probably would have left it in because it gives you a feeling of starting over again, and the repetition of all that makes it easier for you to remember characters. There's something soothing and comfortable about seeing the same characters and hearing about them again and again, like a refrain in a song. But I did make changes and some of the chapters have lost that sense of wholeness and some of the stories do begin to lean on each other. They don't stand as nicely on their own as they did at first. In the end, it was okay.
Many of the chapters or the stories are structured by counterpoint, an alternating movement between separate time periods with separate characters and so on. Sometimes the relationship between those layers of the text, those separate stories within the story, is very clear and sometimes it's very subtle, as in an Alice Munro story—where part of the pleasing strangeness is that you don't quite see the linkages. The one I'm thinking of is chapter 14, I guess, which has David Plume and Wounded Knee, and May dean Joe and the clothes dryer. I was intrigued by that one.
People are social animals, and I believe we are most comfortable when we are part of a community or group. In that particular story I wanted to deal with the various forms that alienation might take and the ironies that are created as people try to maintain or change their positions. David Plume goes to Wounded Knee, and in part, loses his place within his community. But he has a place within that small group of Natives who did go to Wounded Knee. May Dean, because of her handicap, is not accepted as a full-fledged member of the kids who hang out in the basement. Will didn't go to Wounded Knee, but he is alienated from the Native community in much the same way David is. I don't try to make these layers and linkages line up perfectly or to use them to point to a moral. Maybe I'm interested in the ways we punish ourselves and others. Certainly David and May Dean and Will present different facets of a particular malaise that I've known first hand. I'm not sure I can name it, but I know what it feels like.
But what is the connection between getting into the dryer and AIM and the Wounded Knee episode?
The connection for me is community. David Plume goes to Wounded Knee because he wants to do something important. May Dean crawls into the dryer because she wants to be like everyone else. Will wants to be part of the community in Medicine River, but he doesn't know what to do. He doesn't want to go with David and he doesn't want to get in the "dryer," as it were. For that one instance in the book, he's sort of caught out. He goes back in the office, and he turns all the lights on and opens all the doors just to keep himself from being trapped, I suppose, trapped in that dryer, trapped in that van for no reason that he really understands. I'm not even sure I understand.
It's very strong.
I go back and read that and still find it quite moving. Partly I'm pleased by it and partly I'm frightened. There is a level of disaster in each of those episodes that I feel helpless to prevent.
There are some independent women in this book, Louise Heavyman and Susan, too, the woman in Toronto. And there's a lovely kind of tension, I think, between the need for pairing with a man and the need not to be gobbled up by that, to stand apart. I wonder if you'd like to comment on that.
Well, I've been around independent women all my life. There weren't really many men in my life, and the ones there were were transient for the most part. I suppose when I was a teenager I never really learned exactly what men did. I sort of saw it from a distance, but it was all filtered through my mother and my grandmother. And while they didn't always get along together, they were very strong women. They had their own views. They kept themselves apart. My mother never remarried after my father took off, and my grandmother lost her husband when I was five years old, I guess. So they were women who had to make it on their own.
That whole thing of women having to pair up within the confines of a novel strikes me as being very artificial. A strong woman such as Susan, even though she seems to be a bit of a flake when we first meet her, is obviously capable of making very tough choices. So much so that after a very long silence, when she invites Will to a party at her place, Will thinks everything is going to be great and he's going to wind up in bed with her again. But it's a large party, and she ends up introducing him to her ex-husband who is also at the party. There's certain cruelty in that, I suppose. But for me, it's the way that character has of breaking off with her past and putting some kind of closure to it.
Louise Heavyman makes the same kind of hard choices, first about Harold and later about Will. There's that scene when she buys the house that has a darkroom downstairs. Harlen runs around like crazy, telling Will, "This is your chance. She bought the house for you, because there's a darkroom in there." Will comes back the next week, and she's had the darkroom torn out.
Are we to conclude then that it really was totally accidental that she bought a house with a darkroom, or was that an expression of her ambivalence?
No, I think it's an expression of her ambivalence. She asks at one point, "Did you ever think about us living together?" Will says "Yeah." And she says "So have I"—and rolls over and goes to sleep.
But, you know, shortly after that scene Will wonders whether she's ever going to suggest that he move in. I was intrigued by that because her question—"Did you ever think about us living together?"—could have been an invitation. Maybe he was supposed to say "Yes, let's do it." In that case, one could read her getting rid of the darkroom as a sign that she was miffed: "You didn't bite at the bait, baby, so there goes your room."
Well, Will's ambivalent, too. I mean, he starts to sweat when she asks that question. You know the covers on the bed are not that heavy, and he's sweating because she's more or less asking the question that in one sense Will is supposed to ask. It's the question Harlen keeps pushing Will to ask, and Will is slightly ambivalent. Probably less so than Louise. But yes, I think she's thinking about that. I mean, they really like each other; you couldn't help but think about that. And so she buys a house that has a darkroom, and she thinks about it during that period of time, and then probably says "No, wait a minute; we don't really need a darkroom, particularly." It's not that she closes living together off as a possibility. But she closes it off as an immediate possibility, I think.
I like that reading a lot. As you know, Harlen Bigbear is my favourite character in Medicine River. His role as a social convenor and his itch to help everybody is a wonderful device for creating community and also for lending a tone of great sweetness to the book. In some way Harlen, and in particular Will's friendship with Harlen and Will's valuing of Harlen, seems to chime nicely with this whole issue of the female independence and the tension between independence and community. The two things together—the way you handle the women and the way you handle the Harlen/Will friendship—seem enormously optimistic to me. It's as if males are moving towards female strengths, and females towards male strengths. It's part of a very moving thing in the book for me.
Harlen's my favorite character, too. Harlen rarely reacts the way you expect a typical male to react. His whole notion is that the world is a fragile place, and he says "You know, it's like a spider web, and it's like a starfish because a starfish can grow a new arm." And so Harlen's job, as he sees it, is to make sure that the world is in good health. And in order to do that you can't yell at people and tell them what to do. You have to use what I suppose is a more feminine approach to that world and remind people of their responsibilities and their obligations. Suggest things that they should do. It is a softer and tenderer method of arranging the whole community. That is what Harlen's about. Even with the great tragedies that overtake the community—the suicide of Jake Pretty Weasel, for instance—there's that sense of having to close the wound. And in a sort of crazy way, it is closed—partly by the letter that January writes for Jake, and partly by the willingness of January and the community to let Jake's bad behaviour die with him. In this instance, Harlen keeps his silence while the other men speculate on what exactly happened. Other times Harlen moves actively to try to fix up what he sees as holes in the fabric of the community. For instance, when Louise Heavyman gets pregnant, Harlen starts worrying about her not having any family or friends. Everybody's thrown her out, Harlen tells Will, and then you discover that that hasn't happened at all. Of course, Will believes Harlen and when he goes to the hospital to stand by Louise, he gets caught out. Yeah, I'm quite fond of Harlen.
Harlen's role is mending and keeping up the community.
Darning the community.
Yes, darning the community. It's very much the role of the women characters in Sheila Watson's The Double Hook, which in fact uses the imagery of threads and darning and so on. But it's very pleasing to see a male character performing that role, and quite rare too, I think.
Well, Harlen is very much a traditional character. He's the trickster figure, rearranged in some ways.
In what ways is he a trickster?
One of the roles of the trickster is to try to set the world right …
And sometimes, like Coyote, he destroys?
Oh yes, that's the problem. He's creator and destroyer. Harlen is always looking to do good—and sometimes he does good. Other times he gets things totally wrong. Or he creates a situation in which things don't go as well as they should.
He's something of a meddler, then.
He's a meddler, a constant meddler. He doesn't have a job, you know. I mean, nobody knows what Harlen does. He's got to do something for a living, but no one ever sees him working at a regular job. He just sort of appears. There's a certain surrealistic quality to Harlen. He's not like Will or Louise, who have reasonably normal lives. Harlen is just there. He's like the land and the sky.
I'm thinking particularly of that wonderful scene at the airport, when Will at last heeds Harlen's advice and comes back to Medicine River, and finds Harlen still standing there. It seems to Will that Harlen might have been waiting for him there all that time, ever since he'd shown him off on the plane for Toronto months earlier.
Actually, you know, I sort of stole that scene from a poem….
A poem by Michael Ondaatje called "Bear Hug."
Isn't that funny?
Yep, I read that and I was very moved by that poem. You know, how long had the child been standing there with his arms open, waiting for his father's hug? And when I was writing the story I was reminded of Ondaatje's "Bear Hug," and I thought to myself what a marvellous image….
Harlen is Bigbear too.
And he's Bigbear too, that's right. So there he is with that bear hug … Well, that's great, because it really was very much in my mind, and I had to be careful. I didn't want to use the same line that Michael had used. But I wanted that image you know, wondering how long Harlen had been standing there like that, to let the reader know that he hasn't moved in all that time. Harlen's been there waiting….
And therefore magic.
And therefore magic. There is a magic part to Harlen. I really love magic.
How important is the absent father to your conception of the book?
Well, the father's letters become the core around which the book is built. The letters themselves begin to bring the reader into those early flashbacks, and they also set up a dichotomy of sorts for Will because he only knows his father through the letters. Every time he tries to remember something about the father he's thwarted. Every time he thinks he's got his father pegged, he discovers he's wrong. Like the time his mother tells stories about someone she doesn't name; it turns out that it's not his father at all, but he thinks it is. He even goes so far as to make up stories about his father so he has some kind of past, some kind of history for the man. But in large part the father's letters become a counterpoint to the way in which Will is going to live his own life.
There's a metaphor I'm especially fond of that shows this. The father writes a letter in which he talks about a top he's bought for James and Will, a top that mysteriously never arrives. And you never know if the father actually bought the top or not, and there's the sense that Will's father never took responsibility for his sons. So when South Wing is born, Will takes responsibility for her, but it is only when he buys South Wing that musical top at the very end of the book (the top he never got from his father) that you know he is really taking responsibility for that little girl—and he's doing it not for Louise, but for himself and perhaps for his past.
It's kind of a moving spot for me as a writer because there's a lot of emotion tied up for Will in his father and those letters. It's not that Will loves his father and it's not that he misses his father particularly. It's just that he never knew the man. There are parts of his life that he'll never know and responsibilities that were not taken for him. For Will at least, there is always that question of responsibility to individuals and the community. I suppose in some ways the letters from the father remind him of what he should do and what he must not become.
There are several references to New Zealand and Australia in the book, and I know you've spent some time there. I'd like you to comment on that and to indicate whether you feel a special connection with Maori writers or Aboriginal writers in Australia.
Well, I spent almost three years in Australia and New Zealand. And when I came to Joe Bigbear and had to send Joe some place in the world, the obvious places were New Zealand and Australia. I do feel an affinity with other aboriginal people, and the Maori in New Zealand and the Aboriginal in Australia for instance, in part because I think our experience with colonization is similar, but more because we seem to be concerned about the same things. Writers such as Colin Johnson, Keri Hulme, and Patricia Grace write about community in the same way that Native writers in Canada and the US do. I've just finished Grace's Potiki which is about a Maori community. It touches on some of the same things that I like to write about and many of the storytelling techniques, the characters, and the voices are familiar.
Here comes the inevitable question. Where do you stand on the controversy about non-Natives writing on Natives? Do you like reading those accounts from the outside? Do you feel it's an appropriation?
I don't mind reading it. Writers like Tony Hillerman and William Eastlake do a pretty good job with it. Other writers—well, Bill Kinsella is certainly the easiest target.
Or M. T. Kelly?
You have to include people like M. T. Kelly, and in some ways you even have to include Rudy Wiebe in that. I think there is a problem with the way in which they approach their material. For instance, there's a very strong romantic strain that runs through The Temptations of Big Bear. Instead of describing the community, he really does isolate Big Bear as a character off by himself. Now, I know part of the reason is that Big Bear is the focus of that novel. But it's a bit bothersome because it begins to remind me of some nineteenth century novels that deal with Indians in which the focus is on the individual rather than the community. Kinsella has, what, six collections of Hobbema stories out now. And out of all of them, maybe ten percent are really moving stories. Very well written. I was quite taken with some of the stories in Dance Me Outside, but the majority of the stories are just sort of eighth-grade playground jokes that have been extended into short stories with Indians affixed to them. I don't care much to read THAT. I find that poor writing. I also find some of the images offensive, as I found some of the images in M. T. Kelly's book offensive: that whole sort of yuppy shamanism thing that appears there. I mean Kelly starts off well enough, but the whole thing becomes a magical mystery tour part way through the book. It does bother me when non-Native writers write poorly about Indians or use Indians for purposes that don't really have anything to do with Indian people or Indian culture. But I'm not going to go out and say that they can't do it. I'm not going to tell Ruth Beebe Hill who wrote Hanto Yo, which was an absolutely awful and stupid B western, that she can't write about Indians. But these writers can't expect that we're going to say that we like this kind of crap.
You'll reserve the right to be offended.
I'll reserve the right to be offended, and I'll reserve the right to say something about it. As I'm sure they'll exercise their right to say anything they want about my stuff. I mean, I don't like criticism. It pains me deeply if someone doesn't like something I do. But you can't be a writer without opening yourself up to criticism. Outside of the problem of plain shoddy writing, I think the real problem is with writers who go into a Native community and take a story that is the community's story, and simply pull it out and put it in print, and don't pay much attention to whether they've really got it right or not. I think that's offensive to the community itself. Many traditional communities feel that there is a stock of stories that they themselves possess. It is part of their culture, and if they want to share it with the outside world, they will. If they don't want to share it, they won't. There have been instances where people have gone in and just simply taken those stories as if they were commodities off a shelf and sold them, as it were.
Do you feel then that the white writer hearing of such stories ought to ask permission before using them?
It depends on what the situation is. If you're invited as a guest onto a reserve, let's say, or into a group and they let you sit in on one of the ceremonies or a story cycle … yes, I think you need to ask. Some writers will say "OK, we'll ask, but we'll do it anyway." Well, you can't stop that from happening, but I think it's poor judgement. And besides, you know, with a lot of the writers who are looking at Native material, I think the biggest crime—not crime …
Yes … offense is that Indians sort of become the flavour of the month. You have all these writers jumping on the bandwagon and writing about Indians because it's going to sell. I find that offensive. Again, I can't say to them, "Don't do it" or "You shouldn't be doing that." But I find that offensive, very offensive. And once again, I'm not unwilling to say so.
You were born in the United States and hold Canadian citizenship. I wonder how relevant such distinctions seem to your work as a Native writer or your sense of yourself as Native.
Well, I guess I'm supposed to say that I believe in the line that exists between the US and Canada, but for me it's an imaginary line. It's a line from somebody else's imagination; it's not my imagination. It divides people like the Mohawk into Canadian Mohawks and US Mohawks. They're the same people. It divides the Blackfoot who live in Browning from the Blackfoot who live at Standoff, for example. So the line is a political line, that border line. It wasn't there before Europeans came. It was a line that was inscribed across the country after that. I'm not a fan of nationalism, although I consider myself a Canadian writer—in part because of my Canadian citizenship. But my material is Canadian, for the most part; the landscape that I deal with in most of my fiction is Canadian. This side of the border. And I prefer to be here rather than down in the US. At the same time, that kind of border and that kind of nationalism create centres that I don't think do Indian people any good. It suggests things to us that we should become, things I'm not much interested in becoming.
What do you mean?
Well, the other day when we had our little tête-à-tête in the meeting, there was the sense—at least to me—that I was being asked to buy into a particular image of Indians. I mean Indians sitting around drinking Lysol is a real knee-jerk image. Part of the question that was asked was why wasn't I saying the things that Canadian readers and Canadian intellectuals knew intimately to be true about Indians? Now that's an attempt to centre literature around a certain set of expectations. And much of it, I think, has to do with nationalism, which always creates superior/inferior relationships. Canadians may not feel superior to the British, but they damn well feel superior to Indians. I'm not at all interested in reinforcing stereotypes and clichés….
Tom, I have a question about the audience you write for, the extent to which you are simply writing for whoever wants to read it, and the extent to which you are writing for Native people or to illuminate Native experience for non-Native readers.
Well, I do both Native and non-Native material. When I do my Native material, I'm writing particularly for a Native community. That doesn't mean that I've got a specific community in mind. It's just that as a Native writer I think you take on responsibilities and obligations. And those are different from the obligations and responsibilities that I might take on when I'm doing non-Native stuff. But when I'm doing material like Medicine River, I'm quite aware that there's a Native community out there that is looking at this material, and I have to ask myself the question, "Is what I'm doing proper? Does it fulfil the responsibilities I have?" It's not as though I have a list of those responsibilities that I can talk about; it's just a sense of responsibility to that community. And so with Medicine River I'm really writing initially for a Native audience. It's a real irony because as I see my audience out there, and as I think about that Native audience and how much I hope they'll enjoy the book and the kind of storytelling that goes on in the book, I'm also reminded that the book costs twenty-five bucks for the hard copy. And, you know, not a great many Native people are going to want or have twenty-five extra bucks to put out on the book. So the audience that I write for in some ways almost becomes a lost audience. I mean, the paperback may get out into the Native communities, but aside from that…. Nonetheless, it sustains my writing to keep that audience in mind. For instance, I try to keep away from poor language in the book.
What do you mean by poor language?
Poor language—obscenities, for example, that Native people would find offensive. I also try to stay away from dialect. Dialect creates centres, and so instead of creating dialects I try to reorder my syntax. People can argue with you and say, "Well, if you change the syntax around you create a dialect." But I am willing to say "No, that doesn't necessarily happen." Syntax is very difficult from "you seeum moon come upum over mountain," that kind of thing. I think of that as a responsibility not to show Native people as illiterate or stupid, because dialect has that tendency …
And there are you thinking of a white audience or …
No, no, there I'm thinking of the Native audience. I really don't care about the white audience at that point. I also like to be careful that I don't try to tell too much about the Native community….
Do you speak a Native language?
No. Bits and pieces of some, but not enough to get me fed and a bed to sleep in at night.
Are you worried about the survival of Native languages? Do you think that's essential to the survival of Native traditions?
Yes, I worry about Native languages. I think they're in better shape than many people give them credit for being. I like to point out that Native cultures, over the last 500 years since the advent of Europeans in North America, have been under a state of siege. The demand to assimilate, to give up traditional ways, has certainly been a part of Canadian and US history right up to the present. And every twenty years or so somebody writes the obituary for Indian people: Indian people aren't going to survive; they're losing their traditions; they're losing their language, etc. etc. You can go all the way back to the 1700s and find these obituaries. And yet the tribes and the cultural groups remain, and they continue into the present day. You can go out to the Blood Reserve at Standoff, down to Window Rock on the Navaho reservation, back out to James Bay Cree or down to St. Regis. There are Indian tribes everywhere. It is true that many of these tribes have made changes—all cultures change—and many of those changes they've chosen for themselves. Other changes have been enforced on them. But for all of that, for all those centuries of colonization—and the colonization hasn't stopped—the tribes have remained in pretty good shape. Along with that is the periodic revival of Native traditions and language. Whether the languages will all survive or not I don't know. I hope they do, because with-in the language is contained much of the literature, the oral literature that is a pool for all of us to use.
But it must get translated, since you know it.
Yes, it does, and of course much of the material that I'm working with is material that has been translated and there is nothing wrong with translation, though it has its limits. There was a great book published just a little while ago by Theytus Books and Talonbooks called Write It On Your Heart by Harry Robinson, who passed away just a little while ago. He was a storyteller and he wrote a collection of stories in English that were transcribed by Wendy Wickwire. She didn't translate them; but what's marvellous is that you can see the oral characteristics coming through into written English. And again it's that sense of syntax, part of it's the syntax that Robinson is able to create.
But what does that have to do with the Native language?
Robinson is a traditional elder. He speaks his language. In addition to maintaining the language and encouraging other people to maintain the language, in his book, Robinson also begins to develop ways in which oral literature and written literature can merge so that the characteristics of oral performance and the tenets of culture can be successfully retold and re-created in a written format. The key to Robinson's literature is that he knows both languages and he understands storytelling.
Do you know how many Native people speak only English?
No. I don't know if anyone really does.
We ought to know that.
Yes, but I don't think anyone is really interested in that. It's the whole assimilationist idea that Native languages are inferior to European languages. One of the great jokes that I keep with me happened down at University of Utah, when Native students from the Navaho reservation went in to get credit for a foreign language. The administration said, "Oh yes"—this was during liberal days—"certainly, we'll give you a foreign language credit for Navaho." And the Navaho said, "No, no. That's not what we want. We want credit for English as a foreign language." But the administration did not want to do that. A real irony when you think about it.
Oh, that's wonderful.
They did it for a while because the logic was impeccable. But they didn't want to do it; they didn't want to give foreign language credit for English.
Let me just ask one final question, Tom. What do you think you value most of your Native heritage?
Oh God! That's like asking someone what they like best about their mother when she's sitting in the same room, listening. It sustains me. I value that.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 3755
SOURCE: "'Tell Our Own Stories': Politics and the Fiction of Thomas King," in World Literature Written in English, Vol. 30, No. 2, Autumn, 1990, pp. 77-84.
[In the essay below, Walton applies semiotic theory to Medicine River, viewing the novel as a postmodern, metadiscursive text that attempts to create "a presence for natives, in order to combat their status as Other."]
Margery Fee, in her essay "Romantic Nationalism and the Image of Native People in Contemporary English-Canadian Literature" [The Native in Literature, edited by Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy, 1987], argues that English-Canadian literature has required representations of the native to forge and to strengthen its sense of cultural identity. This is why, she suggests, the figure of the native assumes such prominence in these texts, and why the native cannot be erased from them. She contends that
it is difficult to kill off the literary Indian for good … he appears to metamorphose into the land, rather than die, as if to be available when needed. One explanation for his stubborn immortality here may be that many of the techniques that might kill him off … come from cultures where nationalism is not an issue, not because nationalism has been transcended, but because it is an unthreatened fact…. Marginal cultures can rarely afford to be cynical about nationalism: we are afraid that if we don't believe in Indians, we will have to become Americans.
Fee's argument is important, for it foregrounds the ways in which cultural identities have been established. As she implies, one culture is often defined through its difference from an/Other; cultural presence is generated through the construction of an absence upon which it relies for its definition. Because the positive can only be present/ed in opposition to its negative, this has meant that, in practice, the dominant culture has required a sub-group to delineate itself; it acquires its positive attributes through its difference from its constructed Other. The Other occupies the space of that which the dominant culture is not. John Sekora and Houston A. Baker, Jr. discuss the result of this logic and draw attention to its oppressive impetus [in their "Written Off: Narratives, Master Texts, and Afro-American Writing from 1760–1945," in Black American Prose Theory, edited by Joe Weixlmann and Chester J. Fontenot, 1984]:
racism in America was undoubtedly satisfying, consolidating as it was dividing. It readily accommodated, even encouraged, belief in a historical division of humankind into a virtuous 'we' standing against a deformed 'they.' In a psychological sense it proved—more conveniently than empirical evidence could ever hope to do—the existence of lower, corrupted, imperfect humanity, whether called slave or black or insane or savage. With slaves constituted as the Other, masters found means to speak the unspeakable and thereby to constitute themselves. They had found, that is, a powerful measure of self-worth and self-definition.
Sekora and Baker assert that blacks, in particular, signified the lower, corrupted nature through which white American culture defined itself as superior, civilized, etc. Canada, which has attempted to establish itself through the same means, has likewise been involved in marginalizing racial minorities. In Canada's case, as Fee contends, the Other has been located in the native, who has been used to solidify the white English-Canadian identity.
Terry Goldie, in Fear and Temptation: The Image of the Indigene in Canadian, Australian, and New Zealand Literatures, discusses those attributes that have been associated with the native Other, and which constitute what he calls the "semiotic field of the indigene." He suggests that "[t]he commodities—sex, violence, orality, mysticism, the prehistoric—can be seen as part of a circular economy within and without the semiotic field of the indigene." These become those things which the native Other "is," and which the English Canadian "is not." As a result, the native has no singular presence within this discourse, for s/he functions only as Other, necessary to that signifying system, but denied a presence within it. Native presence is an absence which highlights the white cultural norm because it is different. The native is both a part of the signifying system, and forever excluded from it.
Thomas King's recent novel, Medicine River, tries to forge a presence for natives in order to combat their status as Other. The way in which he does this, however, constitutes a political dynamic quite different from that used to establish English-Canadian identity. Medicine River is a text that provides a Native perspective on native culture, and, as such, it is a text that I approach from outside its textual discourse. As a white English-Canadian woman, I speak to the novel from within the culture it seeks to decentre. This places me in an awkward position, for, while this is not an effort to appropriate the text, nor an attempt to make it conform to my cultural expectations, this is, at least to a certain extent, what I am in the process of doing, for my subjectivity informs my reading. I am not trying to totalize Medicine River, however, since I perceive, within it, a signifying impetus in opposition to the exclusionary impetus so favoured by white Western society. I believe King breaks with the idea that in order to delineate culture, one must, necessarily, cast another as Other. In Medicine River, a positive Native presence is generated through its difference from the negative attributes that the native has been made to signify within English-Canadian discourse.
Medicine River is a metadiscursive text, in that, rather than trying to refer to a "reality" outside of language, it refers to a discourse constructed about the native. It is a discourse about discourse, and, as such, it foregrounds the constructedness of the semiotic field of the indigene. That the protagonist, Will, is a photographer is in keeping with this idea, since the photographic process self-reflexively mirrors the text's signifying procedure. Photography generates an image from a negative, a negative which is reversed to project the desired picture. Similarly, in order to project its image, Medicine River plays upon and reverses the negative semiotic field of the indigene, with its connotations of drunkenness, violence, dishonesty, and mysticism, nature, nostalgia. By constructing a presence upon the absence of the native Other, the text avoids prioritizing native culture over other cultures. It therefore also avoids positing a new centre, a centre which would necessitate the construction of new margins. King's text rejects the culturally exclusive endeavour that has marginalized the native as Other, and privileges instead an inclusive and collective process that does not rest upon cultural superiority/inferiority.
Because violence is the trait most commonly associated with the native Other, it is violence that receives most attention in Medicine River. Indeed, the violence draws readers into the text by playing upon and inverting their expectations. The episodes of violence turn out to be more rumour than "fact," rumours that arise and are granted credence because of the discourse that has been constructed about the native, a discourse which informs readers' expectations about the text. In this way, the reader is implicated in the construction of the native Other, as is Will, the native protagonist.
When David Plume is arrested for shooting Ray Little Buffalo, the Medicine River Herald carries a story which Will summarizes for readers: "Ray Little Buffalo had been shot in the stomach. He was found in Chinook Park by the river. David had been arrested and held for questioning." The indigene is found guilty by that voice of white authority—the newspaper—which contributes to the myth of the violent and explosive native. Will's expectations (and the reader's) are raised and seemingly confirmed when Harlen Bigbear, the character who is the focal point of the text, expands upon the rumour:
Ray and three of his friends caught David behind the American Hotel and beat him up. "Damn, Will," Harlen told me, "after they beat him up, Ray took that jacket. Ray's a lot bigger than David, and when he tried to put the jacket on, you know, just to tease David, he ripped it." According to Harlen, David jumped back up and started swinging again, and Ray beat on him some more. After it was over, David went into the American to wash the blood off and then went to his apartment and got his deer rifle. He found Ray down by the river drinking and throwing rocks at the empty bottles.
That Will and, presumably, the reader do not question the story is evidence of the power and the pervasiveness of the semiotic field of the indigene. But as they accept the story, the text implicates them in proliferating cultural stereotypes. Harlen, the one character who is in doubt about the "truth" of the story, discovers:
"David found him [Ray] and started shooting at him. But he missed. When he ran out of bullets, he went home."
"Who shot Ray?"
"Ray wasn't shot. The papers sort of got that mixed up. When David started shooting, Ray tried to get out of the way, but he slipped and fell on the bottle he had in his pocket. Cut his stomach pretty bad. At first, everybody thought Ray had been shot, but he was just cut and drunk."
The apparent tragedy is turned into a black comedy, and the violence in the scene is diffused. It is, however, still present in the text, and thus Medicine River exemplifies what Linda Hutcheon has called the "postmodern paradox," since what the text questions and inverts is, at the same time, restated and reiterated. Violence is reiterated within the narrative, but it is reiterated with a "critical difference," a difference that emphasizes not the violence of the native, but the expectations of violence that Will and the reader bring to their respective texts.
When incidents of violence are not inverted, they are juxtaposed with comparable incidents of white violence. This may appear to be a rather simplistic means of signifying the similarities, rather than the differences between the two cultures, but I think that there is more complicated issue tackled here. Had the text merely posited violence in relation to native characters, because signification relies on absence, this would have suggested there was a lack of violence elsewhere. This, in turn, could be used to support the construct of the violent native and the civilized white. As it is, both cultures are depicted side by side—with no dominant cultural presence and no unstressed cultural absence. The unstressed absent presence, again, is located in the semiotic field of the indigene, which informs readers' expectations of the text. Will very matter-of-factly discusses wife-beating on the reserve: "Jake beat up on January. It was no secret…. Betty down at the hospital said that January was a regular in the emergency ward. Betty told January to file charges but she never did." While this may be in accord with what certain readers "have always known to be true" about natives, they are immediately confronted with another instance of wife-beating. The reserve incident recalls Will's childhood memories of his neighbor, Mrs. Oswald, whom he found
sitting in a chair by the window. She had a towel pressed against her face, and it was covered with blood. There was blood all down her dress, and her face was bruised and swollen. Her left arm lay on the arm of the chair at a funny angle. My mother looked at Mrs. Oswald for a long time, and then she called an ambulance.
Because the complicity of the two cultures is foregrounded, one culture is not prioritized at the expense of an/Other.
Just as the text confronts the issue of native violence, it also confronts the issue of native alcoholism. Will hears a rumour that is circulating around Medicine River: "'Floyd says Harlen's drinking again. Saw him at the American the other afternoon. Looked pretty bad, Floyd said. Heard him in the bathroom throwing up.'" Will does not question the rumour, but goes to Harlen to help him deal with his "problem." In keeping with his expectations and, presumably, the reader's, he finds Harlen "lying on the bed in just his undershirt and shorts. There was a bucket next to the bed. He looked awful." Alcoholism is present here, but with a "critical difference," for Will's understanding of the situation is parodied when Bertha Morley drops by and asks:
"How's he doing?"
"Still pretty drunk…."
"Don't know what started it. Bud Prettywoman said Harlen just started drinking. Didn't know why. You got any idea?…."
"Harlen's not drunk, Will. He's just got the flu. You had it yet?"
"Everybody's getting it. Harlen got it Friday. It was my birthday. We went to the American for lunch. He was pretty sick then, but you know Harlen. Spent most of lunch in the bathroom."
Will, like the reader, is again caught within the dictates of the semiotic field of the indigene, but what he encounters in Medicine River undercuts his expectations. The drunken Indian, here, is a sick Indian, and Will and the reader are again implicated in the re-construction of that semiotic field.
The semiotic field of the indigene signifies more than just violence and alcoholism, however, and the image of the native as mystical, romantic figure is also subverted, for it is just as confining and stereotypical as the figure of the violent, drunken native. Medicine River plays upon what Goldie has observed as the peculiar situation in which the contemporary native is caught: "The indigene of today continues to be a deviant, the drunk and prostitute … but loses the metaphysical resonance of the Other. The present indigene is deindigenized, no longer valid, so the focus of indigenization must be the 'real' indigenes, the resonances of the past." What is "real" for a native is what has gone before. The native of the present has no presence. Medicine River recalls this idea when Harlen discusses a television program with Will: "'Saw Will Sampson on television. It was a movie about him being a sheriff. That's what he said all the time. Hey-uh. He's a real Indian, too….' 'Hey-uh,' said Harlen, loud enough for the cooks in the kitchen to hear, and he began to laugh, too. The two of us sat there laughing." Metadiscursively, King's representations of natives laugh at the representations of natives in the media, and the text draws a distinction between the two. The constructed native of the past shares little in common with King's representations of the native of the present. Yet the native King depicts is rarely, if ever, represented on white-dominated television, which prefers the romanticized view of the native of the past that it has constructed.
In keeping with this idea, Lionel James, a native elder, travels all over the world to tell stories:
"You know, sometimes I tell stories about today, about some of the people on the reserve right now…. But those people in Germany and Japan and France and Ottawa don't want to hear those stories. They want to hear stories about how Indians used to be. I got some real good stories, funny ones, about how things are now, but those people say, no, tell us about the olden days. So I do."
Lionel is not allowed to tell his own stories, but must repeat the stories of the past, stories tinged with nostalgic associations of native and nature, and, in effect, stories that confirm his white audience's perception of native culture, a culture that belongs to and exists only in the past.
If the image of the native exists only in the past, this places natives of the present in a precarious position, since they have no present. Indeed, the fatherless Will spends a great deal of time attempting to forge a past for himself:
Sometimes I'd sit in my apartment and try to think up new professions for my father. And then I'd tell myself to quit fooling around. I'd laugh at myself, shake my head in disgust, promise that I'd stop the whole stupid business. What if I got caught? What if someone back home heard about my father being a rich opal miner in Australia?
Will requires a past in order to forge his identity. He is constructing stories, just as white culture has constructed stories, that will afford him the view of himself and his father that he prefers: "Most of all, I liked to point out, he loved his family, and I was always getting postcards and letters with pictures of him standing against some famous place or helping women and children take sacks of rice off the backs of trucks."
That Will continuously associates his father with photographs is interesting, since photography mirrors his effort to control and to fix the "reality" he is constructing through postcards and pictures. As Hutcheon suggests, photography is a curious medium, for it comprises an effort to control and to possess, to confine and to frame. She observes that "the camera records and justifies, yet it also imprisons, arrests, and thus falsifies the fleeting moment. Taking pictures is a way of both certifying and refusing experience, both a submission to reality and an assault on it."
Will's pictures, in keeping with Hutcheon's suggestion, both capture reality and assault it, for his initial endeavour is exclusive. He is attempting to frame what has gone before in order to make it conform to his preferred vision of it. This is very similar to the white endeavour to construct a presence by confining natives to its preferred vision of them. This process is dangerous, as the text has pointed out, for it restricts what is perceived to a single, constructed, confining interpretation. The text has continually undercut this means of forging presence, by pointing up its constructedness in relation to the native, and therefore it also subverts Will's endeavour, an endeavour that he ultimately abandons. Harlen notes that the photograph of Will and his nuclear family is a frozen representation: "'You and James look like someone sprayed you up and down with starch.' 'That's the way they used to take pictures.' 'Nobody smiling, huh?'" This photograph is lifeless; it mirrors Will's desire to fix and reify the past. The text, however, privileges non-restrictive, non-individualizing efforts. Arnold Krupat argues that the native experience is a collective experience, and this is emphasized in the chapter that focuses on photography.
The photograph of Will's nuclear family is juxtaposed with the collective photograph of Joyce Blue Horn's extended family. This family extends to virtually everyone:
As soon as Harlen explained, in detail, just what a time-delay device was, everyone insisted that I had to be in the picture, too. Floyd's granny even got up and moved her chair over, so I'd have a place to sit.
While Will's nuclear family has been fixed in the picture that confines them, the collective photograph works against efforts to control it:
Then, too, the group refused to stay in place. After every picture, the kids wandered off among their parents and relatives and friends, and the adults floated back and forth, no one holding their positions. I had to keep moving the camera as the group swayed from one side to the other. Only the grandparents remained in place as the ocean of relations flowed around them.
The photograph of Will's nuclear family is left on the kitchen wall, "until the paper began to curl up and the colours started to fade." But if the image fades, then it ceases to be fixed within the boundaries of the picture. In turn, the collective photograph influences Will's reading of his nuclear family's photograph, since the expression on Will's mother's face can only be deciphered metadiscursively. Will first perceives "her face set, her eyes flat," but his reading is later informed by the collective photograph in which Floyd's granny wears the same expression: she "was sitting in her lawn chair next to me looking right at the camera with the same flat expression that my mother had, as though she could see something farther on and out of sight." Floyd's granny, like Will's mother, is looking beyond the frame in which she is caught, and is refusing, therefore, to be confined within it. The photograph looks outward, not inward. The collective photograph, the photograph that swells beyond its frame, self-reflectively mirrors the text's inclusive impetus, for the margins become indistinguishable from the centre and hence obliterate a centre, since there are no demarcations that would allow it to emerge. The photograph spills outward and includes all, for just as Will, the photographer, is included within the photograph he is taking, so readers are included within the text they are reading. Readers play an active part in this novel, for they visualize the photographs in the text. These photographs exist only in language, and come to life only through readers' interaction with the printed page.
Readers can be included in various ways, however. They can act as the camera, and try to fix and to control the collective photograph by freezing it in a singular interpretation. Or they can be included in the collective photograph like Will, who learns that one cannot control or fix a collective experience, for this would be to restrict others' participation in the project. To insist on one's own identity, be it cultural or individual, is to re-create an Other as the absence of what the self connotes. The collective photograph erases individuality, and therefore, erases a centre. If it has no centre, it has no margins, and, thus, the picture spills out of its frame because it is an inclusive, not an exclusive endeavour.
The text concludes with Will embarking on a "long walk in the snow." He walks off the page, leaving it undisturbed like the snow. In so doing, however, he suggests that there may be a different way in which to write that page. The political dynamic of Medicine River may not offer a hard and fast alternative to the traditional means of instilling presence by constructing an Other through which its identity is forged. But, in refusing to posit a centre, it offers a new way of thinking that may allow us to write the page in such a way that we can tell our own stories without silencing all of the Other stories. Like Floyd's granny, this text too looks to "something farther on and out of sight." The snow, after all, constitutes the page that is blank, the page with no centre and no margins, the page that is yet to be written.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 796
SOURCE: "Searching for Home in High-Plains Canada," in The Christian Science Monitor, October 3, 1990, p. 13.
[In the following review, Bencivenga discusses King's treatment of family relationships, alienation, and grief in Medicine River.]
"Home is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in," wrote the poet Robert Frost, in a stark, unromantic Yankee view of home in the life of a dying hired hand.
Home, and having to go there, is the central fact of this delightful, bittersweet first novel [Medicine River] by Thomas King, who gives us a 1980s cross-cultural version of William Saroyan's classic, The Human Comedy.
The setting is the Alberta prairie town of Medicine River. It butts against the Blackfoot Indian reserve. Despite a backdrop of bitter cold winters and a landscape that is high-plains vast—remote, desolate, solitary—readers will search long and hard in contemporary fiction to find as intimate a sense of place and people as in Medicine River.
King, who is of Cherokee, Greek, and German origin, and a member of the native studies department at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, can be trusted as a reliable guide to present-day native Americans. Will, his narrator, is of mixed origin.
King's writing is as smooth and subtle as the snow-covered prairie, as gentle in recording human oddities as a mouse burrowing beneath snow pack. The characters of Medicine River confront reality with stories that are extended metaphors for what they think happened, or should have happened, whether or not it did happen. The white, European premise of scientific and empirical certitude is stood on its head.
When the story opens, both of Will's parents are dead. A single phone call, a day late for Christmas, is the only "live" contact with his younger brother, James. We learn of each through flashbacks. We know his mother was called Rose Horse Capture. His father was a white rodeo rider, who left home when he was four years old. His mother never spoke of him. The separation from his father is Will's central concern. Though from a culture that takes names and the act of naming seriously, one. The tribal basketball coach, Bigbear makes it his business to make everyone else's business his own. Yet he remains one of the least offensive snoops in literature. By making Bigbear the most important character in his story, Will is "repeating" and sharing grief all the time.
It is Bigbear who brings the packet of letters that Will's father had written to his mother after abandoning her and his sons. The letters trigger a series of memories that pulse from present to past, family then to friend now, and which, however loosely structured, give cadence, order, and coherence to Will's life.
There is drinking and fighting in Medicine River. Wives suffer at the hands of their husbands. Young men drive their cars and themselves off the road to their deaths. King does not gloss over the ugly, but rather surrounds it with the deeper humanity of a good story, like Harlen Bigbear surrounding bad news with Quixote-like explanations, as if to talk tragedy into leaving.
Language for Bigbear is a joust with windmills. Bigbear's shortcomings on matters of objective truth are hilarious. King is a master at the conversational non sequitur. The cumulative effect of Bigbear's fictions creates an abiding affection for characters who constantly circle grief.
King breaks down stereotypes about Indians as rhythmically as the drumbeat at a ceremonial gathering. Will is a photographer, an occupation seemingly at odds with the stereotype of Indians not wanting their picture taken because their spirit would be imprisoned in the photograph.
In one scene, Will is commissioned to take a family portrait for one of the huge extended families from the reserve. The family is so large it is impossible to fit them all in his studio. They move to a hollow by the nearby river, and quickly turn the picture-taking into a picnic as well. The children playing by the riverbank, when called for the picture, come "wiggling along like a twist of eels all wrapped around each other."
Before his return to Medicine River, Will lived in Toronto. When a white woman he loves tells him she is married, it is her promiscuous idea of what extended family means, not Will's, that is called into question. Will demands that she decide between him and her husband. She chooses neither, walking away from any commitment. This jars awake memories Will has long suppressed and leads directly to his return to Medicine River.
The book ends with Will spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day by himself. Peaceful enough, he goes for a walk on the crunching snow. The effort to make a home is as important as the effort to return to one.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 474
SOURCE: "Temporal Interplay," in Canadian Literature, No. 13, Winter, 1991, pp. 212-13.
[In the excerpt below, Gillies considers King's treatment of time, memory, and identity in Medicine River.]
One of the great literary obsessions of the twentieth century is time. As Tom King's Medicine River and David Helwig's Of Desire amply demonstrate, this preoccupation has not diminished.
King is well known for his criticism, poetry, and short stories; Medicine River is his first novel. It is a marvelous work which effortlessly presents snapshots of life as seen through the eyes of its half-native narrator, Will a photographer who flees Toronto and returns home to Medicine River, Alberta. Through him we meet other members of the town's native community—Harlen Bigbear, who has a hand in almost everything going on; Louise Heavyman, the independent minded accountant with whom Will has a relationship; Floyd, Elwood, and the other players on the Medicine River Friendship Centre Warriors basketball team; and Martha Oldcrow, the marriage doctor; January Pretty Weasel, a battered wife who may have played a part in her husband's apparent suicide; David Plume, a native activist who was at Wounded Knee, and others. Will tells us bits of their stories and from them a strong sense of place, of person, of a way of life emerges. King does not use the novel as a platform from which he can lecture non-natives about native Canadians; he chooses the harder, and more effective, route of drawing the reader into the daily lives of Louise, Harlen and Will. He succeeds where polemics would surely fail.
At the novel's heart is Will who needs to reconcile his upbringing as an outsider in both white and native worlds with his current standing in Medicine River. A seamless blend of past and present occur; each contributes to our portrait of Will. He is haunted by many memories: of his mother, Rose Horse Capture, who lost her treaty status when she married Will's father Bob, a white rodeo cowboy whom he cannot remember; of his younger brother James, an artist whom he has not seen since his mother died; of Susan, the married, white lover he leaves behind in Toronto; and of childhood recollections which counterpoint and illuminate his adult life. Will finds a place in Medicine River's native community as an adult, but his past dictates to him that he remain apart from it. His profession is symbolic of his position in both white and native communities—apart, observing and recording both worlds with the acute lens of his camera. By weaving together past and present, native and non-native, humourous and insightful accounts, King creates a subtle and rich novel. Its loose episodic structure serves the narrative well for it imparts a reflective mood to the work and it allows him the scope necessary to present a vivid and varied photo of Will's world.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1613
SOURCE: "Thomas King," in Publishers Weekly, Vol. 240, No. 10, March 8, 1993, pp. 56-7.
[In the following excerpt, based on a conversation with King, Weaver provides a general overview of King's career.]
The first thing one notices upon entering Thomas King's home—a rambling, three-story Victorian near the St. Paul campus of the University of Minnesota, where its owner chairs the Native American studies department—is a large taxidermied coyote. The coyote is perched on a table, and seems to be howling at the ceiling.
"I don't like stuffed animals, and I would never have one," explains King, "except that a magazine in Canada flew me up to Montreal for a photo shoot. I spent eight hours in the studio with this coyote, and got attached to her." He bought it, and brought the animal home as carry-on luggage. The coyote now dominates a house filled with Native American art, at home with an author who has written often about its mythic counterpart.
Coyote, the best-known of traditional Indian trickster figures, has figured prominently in several King stories and does so again in his second novel, Green Grass, Running Water, just out from Houghton Mifflin.
With Green Grass, King emerges as a sort of Native American Kurt Vonnegut, addressing contemporary Native American life with a wild and comic imagination. The title refers to old treaties between the U.S. government and the native nations which often promised land to the Indians "as long as the grass is green and the water runs." King skillfully blends various Native, Judeo-Christian and literary stories in such a way as to expose both the truth and the falsity in each. The book's intricate plot revolves around four mysterious, very old (perhaps ageless) Indians (whimsically named Hawkeye, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and the Lone Ranger) who periodically escape from a mental institution to "fix things" in the outside world. This time they are determined to avert an environmental disaster about to take place in Canada. During their picaresque adventure they become involved with some off-beat modern Natives, who variously help and hinder the fugitives' attempt to restore nature's balance.
The desire for harmony, in fact, runs through much of King's work. "Within Native communities, there's a desire to maintain a balance, to make things right if they're wrong—not to make everything good, but to maintain a balance," he declares. "The old Indians [in my book] recognize that they haven't taken such good care of the world. Things went wrong—as things will. It's like having too many people on a teeter-totter and never having the right balance. You try for it, and the important thing is that attempt."
For someone who professes to be a "savage introvert" and would prefer to retreat to his house "and just write," King talks expansively enough about his work, punctuating his conversation with a booming laugh. His words flow easily, reflecting his career as a university professor and challenging stereotypes about Indian taciturnity.
King challenges stereotypes in other ways, too. For one thing, he makes a point of defining himself as of Cherokee, Greek and German descent. "I don't want people to get the mistaken idea that I am an 'authentic Indian,' or that they're getting the kind of Indian that they'd like to have," he states, observing that what they'd like is instead "some 19th-century Native on a pinto pony in a teepee." He continues, "I didn't grow a mustache until I was 35 or 36 years old. And some friends said, 'Tom, look, you gotta get rid of the mustache. You're in the Indian business. You can't go around with a mustache.' And I thought, maybe I shouldn't wear a suit; maybe I should wear a loincloth, while I'm at it. Those are some of the misconceptions I like to play around with."
King's father, a Cherokee from Oklahoma, deserted the family when King was about five, leaving King and his brother to be raised by their mother in a small town in central California. Although they made "a couple of trips back to Oklahoma to visit relatives" when they were small, the boys were, King acknowledges, "for the most part raised outside of Cherokee culture." Today, he claims he probably knows as much about Blackfoot culture, the milieu of Green Grass and his previous novel, Medicine River, as he does about the Cherokees.
Yet gaps in knowledge may have proved an asset, allowing King greater freedom in writing about Native American themes. "In some ways, I'm this Native writer who's out there in the middle, not of nowhere, but I don't have strong tribal affiliations. My responsibilities are to the story and to the people from whom I get some of the stories. Other than that, I feel rather free to ask some of the really nasty questions that other writers may not want to ask or may not be in a position to ask." He continues, "One of the questions that's important to ask is, 'Who is an Indian? How do we get this idea of Indianness?'"
King in fact portrays Natives in varied circumstances and walks of life. For instance, Lionel Red Dog, the rather lazy protagonist of Green Grass sells TVs and electronic equipment. "There are people who think this is a lousy job for an Indian," says King. "His Auntie Norma doesn't think much of it. His Uncle Eli thinks it's okay as long as you have a job. Eli's a university professor. I wanted to make sure these people had what society thinks of as legitimate jobs, so that they would not be dismissed out of hand. And I didn't want to make them shamans on the reserves, so that people would say, 'Oh yeah, wow, truths are going to come out of the mouth of this particular character.'"
Green Grass, like King's other work, is steeped in Native oral tradition—the subject of his Ph.D. dissertation at the University of Utah. And the novelist still loves to sit and listen to traditional storytellers, whose skill amazes him. "They're going down the line at 150 miles an hour—and make a right turn! You're following close behind them, and you just run right off the road." Their narrative style influenced King to think of his novels as "oral pieces. It's a good trick to learn. I think a lot of novelists believe that there are places they can rest, where they can take time out from telling the story for a while and cruise. But that's deadly. If you let a reader start to cruise, you lose the reader."
Naturally enough, King's interest in oral narrative also leads to a reliance on dialogue in his fiction. "I like to hear my characters talking. I like to hear their voices. Although I greatly admire writers like N. Scott Momaday, who can go for pages and never have anyone say anything, I'd go nuts if I couldn't hear my characters speak."…
King has also edited an anthology of short fiction by Canadian Native writers, All My Relations. Originally published in Canada by McClelland and Stewart in 1990, it was picked up by the University of Oklahoma Press in 1992 as part of a series edited by King's friend and fellow Native author, Gerald Vizenor, whom King cites as a major influence. He also published a children's book, A Coyote Columbus Story, with Groundwood [in] 1992.
Short stories "fall by the wayside" whenever King is working on a novel, when he becomes, by his own admission, "monomaniacal." Focused dedication was necessary for Green Grass, whose plot is so convoluted and involved that King had to draw flowcharts to keep it straight. "It almost killed me," he says, and claims that he's not anxious to do it again. He assesses Green Grass as "probably the most complex and difficult novel I'll ever write."
He is already three chapters into his next book and, although reluctant to talk about it, acknowledges that it will be a comic novel, but perhaps "less comic" than the others. He also discloses that he is departing from the Blackfoot reserve setting. "I'm trying to move away from a culturally specific area completely. The Indians in [the next book] aren't identified by tribe, for instance, and as a matter of fact, they're not even much identified by geographic area." The novel takes place in two towns on either side of the U.S.—Canadian border, divided by a river. "People are going to guess where it is, and their guesses will probably be pretty accurate. But I'm trying to keep the tribal names out of it, if I can. I want to figure out a way to write a more pan-Indian novel."
King's other current projects include screenplays, which allow him to exercise his ear for dialogue. He wrote the script for the TV movie of Medicine River, starring the Native actor Graham Greene; filmed in Canada, it will air this spring. He even played a small part in it, that of an over-the-hill basketball player (at 6′6″ he is well qualified). He is also adapting his short stories for the screen.
In spite of his growing prominence, King is still a bit dumbstruck by all the attention. He professes to be amazed that anyone would want to interview him, and wonders why, ultimately, the dominant culture is paying much attention to him. "I really don't care about the white audience," he says. "They don't have an understanding of the intricacies of Native life, and I don't think they're much interested in it, quite frankly." With Green Grass, Thomas King is likely to attract them regardless, and in the process, to interest and educate an impressive number of readers.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 837
SOURCE: "Setting Indian Legends Loose upon a Few Lives of Today," in Los Angeles Times, March 25, 1993, p. E2.
[An American critic and journalist, Eder received the Pulitzer Prize for criticism in 1987. In the following, he provides a mixed review of Green Grass, Running Water.]
In Thomas King's [Green Grass, Running Water, an] arch fantasy about American Indians who rediscover their old values in a contemporary world, the principal roles are played by spirits.
One is Coyote, the mischievous, Loki-like figure of Indian tradition, who listens to King's story, comments on it and intervenes by dancing near a dam that encroaches upon an Indian reserve. His dance brings on an earthquake that shatters the dam. Coyote apologizes, then subverts the apology with an unrepentant "Hee-hee-hee-hee."
The others are four old Indians who travel around the country in the guise of bumbling hobos. They are, in fact, four primal female spirits who have been around since the beginning of the world. Their present concern is to fix up a little corner of it, namely, the little corner around the town of Blossom on the Canadian prairies.
At one point, watching a John Wayne western on a display of TV sets, they make a few adjustments. The U.S. cavalry disappears in mid-rescue, Wayne and Richard Widmark end up full of arrows and, for resplendent good measure, the old black-and-white footage is instantly colorized.
They have a hand in the dam situation as well, but what they mainly work on, when they are not arguing over mythical versions of the past, is the hearts and minds of three young American Indians who have forsaken the old ways in favor of Yuppified striving.
One of these is Lionel, who wears a gold-thread jacket to work for the boosterish white owner of the local appliance emporium. Norma, his mother, lives on the reserve and scolds him for trying to whiten himself. An even more energetic whitener is Lionel's cousin, Charlie, who works in Edmonton for the big corporation that finances the dam. They share the affections and alternating company of Alberta. She teaches American Indian culture at the university in Calgary, but is as confused about her identity as about her lovers, and the fetus one of them has given her.
The trio converges on Blossom, partly to celebrate Lionel's birthday, and partly for the annual Sun Dance ceremony. The four old magical Indians hitchhike there, and Coyote is not far off. To the degree that Green Grass, Running Water has an ongoing plot—both the title and the theme attempt to give currency to the old American Indian treaty phrase, "As long as the grass grows green and the waters run"—it deals with what happens during the visit.
The Sun Dance goes on, a renegade hippie in-law is foiled when he attempts to film it, the dam breaks. Charlie loses his job and will go to Los Angeles to take care of his father, whose broken-down career as a screen Indian has taken a sudden upturn (another bit of "fixing" by the itinerant quartet). Lionel gives up his job to rebuild an ancestral cabin on the reserve. Alberta will have her baby, and possibly marry Lionel.
All of these characters are agreeable though faintly drawn. There is more bite in the story of Lionel's uncle, Eli. He fled the reserve a generation earlier, became a professor in Toronto, and returned after his wife's death to fight the dam builders with injunctions, and to be swept away in the rushing water after Coyote does the earthquake dance.
Eli is a figure of some texture. His stoic resistance to the dam—"cold and ponderous, clinging to geography of the land"—has a quality of lived experience and goes beyond the facile use of symbolism. There are occasional chilling glimpses of American Indian victimization, as when a used car dealer refuses to return an Indian's stolen truck or when Charlie's unemployed actor father performs as a painted savage in a strip joint.
The human characters don't have much of a chance, though. They are not so much inspired by the attendant spirits as literally shoved from spot to spot. King's writing can be lyrical and sometimes funny, but it is not novelistic. Introducing American Indian legend into present-day lives, he is far more interested in the legend.
Much of the book is taken up by the retelling of one story in four variations. In each, a primal woman figure falls from the sky into the sea and makes her way to a 19th-Century fort in Florida where Indian insurgents were kept prisoner. From there they will roam America to assist, ghostlike, their ravaged people.
The four versions give each primal woman a different set of adventures along the way. Each takes over a white legend or tale: The Lone Ranger, Moby Dick, Robinson Crusoe and James Fenimore Cooper's Natty Bumppo. But King's effort to tell a folk tale in sprightly modern terms, is heavy-handed and whimsical. Its fantasy pulls a considerable didactic load.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 552
SOURCE: "Tale of a Blackfoot Family in Canada," in The Christian Science Monitor, March 31, 1993, p. 13.
[In the review below, Knickerbocker offers praise for Green Grass, Running Water.]
Mix together a story that includes native-American and other creation myths, 20th-century Indians both modern and "traditional," white people who seem a bit confused, oral story-telling and straight novelistic narrative, and you're likely to produce a disaster, a literary dog's break-fast.
Or, if you're Thomas King—whose first novel, Medicine River, was sweet, poignant, and funny—then you somehow weave it all together in a way that leaves the reader fully satisfied.
Green Grass, Running Water is the tale of a contemporary Blackfoot family in Canada. Lionel Red Dog, approaching middle age, is stuck in a dead-end job selling TVs and stereos in the town of Blossom. His sister Latisha runs a tourist-trap cafe. Uncle Eli Stands Alone was a university professor in Toronto but has moved back to the family cabin, which stands in the way of a giant dam. Cousin Charlie Looking Bear is a smooth lawyer and front man for the company building the dam. Back on "the reserve," Lionel's mother likes to try out gourmet recipes but has to substitute elk for artichokes in an Italian dish.
Then there are four very old Indians named Ishmael, Hawkeye, Robinson Crusoe, and the Lone Ranger. They seem to be men, but that's not quite certain. They may be 80 or 90 years old or they may go back much farther than that. Much, much farther. The only thing certain is that they periodically escape from a mental institution to "fix up part of the world"—like having the cavalry disappear at the last minute in all the video recordings of John Wayne movies.
That Indian trickster Coyote is wandering around in there too, carrying on a running conversation with God and earnestly trying to be "helpful." Meanwhile, automobiles keep disappearing in puddles of water…. (Trust me, it really does work.)
King is in a unique position to observe the state of affairs within Indian families and communities and between Indians and whites. His father was Cherokee, his mother Greek and German. He taught native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, for 10 years and now chairs the Native Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.
Coinciding with Anglo North America's celebration of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the continent, some prominent Indian writers have produced very tough works presenting a native view of the cultural clash that has lasted 500 years.
King takes a different path. His message is subtle. He doesn't hammer on the deception and brutality toward Indians that marked Western expansion in America. He reminds readers of it, but with a light and sometimes bitingly humorous touch.
King's characters are not particularly heroic or wicked. They worry about their mistakes and wonder what comes next. They laugh at themselves. Readers will like them a lot. A sense of shared humanity will break down barriers and stereotypes.
King's title is taken from the oft-broken promise that Indian treaties would be in force for "as long as the grass is green and the waters run." With this, his second strong novel, one hopes that King will continue—with humor and grace—to sort out the remnants of that sorry period in North America's history.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 681
SOURCE: "Coyote Goes Slapstick," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 3, April, 1993, pp. 40-1.
[In the review below, McCormack provides a stylistic and thematic examination of Green Grass, Running Water, praising King's use of humor.]
Thomas King is a writer of varied talents. His first novel, Medicine River (1990), was widely praised, and has since been made into a TV movie. His children's book, A Coyote Columbus Story, was short-listed for last year's Governor General's Award. He's a notable scholar—chair of Native American studies at the University of Minnesota. He also happens to be Cherokee through his father and lays claim to Greek-German connections through his mother.
Among the many striking features of Green Grass, Running Water are the complexity of its plot and the pervasive good humour. This matter of plot—so many narrative strands on the go at once—will undoubtedly create problems for impatient readers. Some of these narratives are in the traditional realistic vein: the stories of five Indians (there are no "Native people" in this book)—Lionel, Alberta, Eli, Latisha, and Charlie—on their individual quests for happiness in a hostile world. Interwoven with their stories, at a kind of surrealistic, mythopoeic level, are the adventures of four elderly Indians (named, ironically, the Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye—there's a lot of amusing literary game-playing in this novel) who've escaped from a psychiatric hospital. These four, together with the omnipresent Coyote, participate in a sort of cosmogony: a reinvention of the creation myth that mingles Genesis and Indian tradition. The narratives of the five realistic characters and of the four old men wind in and out of the plot, merging at times, their stories illuminating each other, their themes recurring. "How many more times do we have to do this?" asks one of the characters. "Until we get it right," says another. The effect is something like that of magic realism: an insight into a world-view lost long ago by those of us whose roots are in Anglo-Saxon Europe.
Certain other images (examples: disappearing cars, fringed leather jackets, John Wayne-style western movies) likewise recur in a variety of permutations, as if in a baroque fantasy.
Indeed, the adventure of reading this novel (for it is an adventure) stems in large part from the reader's fascination at how King will pull the whole thing off technically. This is not at all to say we're indifferent to his imaginary characters and how they'll fare in the end.
The characters are well aware of the complexities of it all. At one point the Lone Ranger is talking to Ishmael: "Everybody makes mistakes," he says. "Best not to make them with stories," Ishmael replies. Their creator doesn't let his characters down; but readers must be patient with him, for this isn't a book driven by plot in the conventional sense. Even so, the transition from one narrative line to another, from the real to the surreal and back again, is done with astonishing improvisatory skill.
Then there's the matter of humour. As a non-Native, I must say that King's humour is absolutely vital for a book that deals with some heavy stuff (the tragic oppression of his people over centuries; the trivializing of that tragedy by Hollywood; the acquiescence in their "whiting" by some ambitious Indians). The quality that prevents Green Grass, Running Water from being an exercise in breast-beating or masochism, on the part of the non-Native reader, is King's kindly humour. It makes his satiric comments (on Western religion, for example, and its irritable, egotistical god) not only palatable, but persuasive. The banter of the four old men, the slapstick of Coyote (not at all the eerie symbol of Sheila Watson's The Double Hook) also help dissipate any suggestion of diatribe.
Green Grass, Running Water is wonderfully well written, and it highlights one transcendent aspect of human culture: the pervasiveness of storytelling. "There are no truths," says one of the characters, "only stories." All politics aside, those who love ingenuity in storytelling will revel in this book and in Thomas King's mastery of a difficult art.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 871
SOURCE: "A Literary Trickster," Maclean's, Vol. 106, No. 18, May 3, 1993, pp. 43, 45.
[In the following, Turbide offers high praise for Green Grass, Running Water.]
Last year, Thomas King wrote A Coyote Columbus Story, a sly tale for children about Coyote, a traditional Indian trickster figure, and a greedy Christopher Columbus. Coyote, who loves baseball, sings and dances the whole world into existence—and accidentally conjures up the explorer. Columbus is searching for gold, chocolate cake, computer games and music videos while his companion sailors covet "a four-dollar beaver," "a fifteen-dollar moose" and "a two-dollar turtle." When Columbus enslaves Coyote's native friends, she tries to undo the damage. In Green Grass, Running Water, King's second novel for adults, Coyote—and the anarchic spirit that it embodies—turns up again in small-town Alberta. Playful and droll, Green Grass is a sophisticated satire on relations between natives and whites. But it is the freshness of voice that sets the book apart, an exhilarating blend of the real and the magical, the sacred and the profane, working themselves out in the lives of five Blackfoot Indians.
Like Coyote, King has been busy creating fictional worlds. One of them is the script that he wrote for a CBC movie, scheduled to air this fall, based on his first novel, Medicine River (1990), about a native man who returns to his home town to set up a photography shop. King, 49, is part Cherokee, part German and part Greek. Currently at the University of Minnesota, he taught native studies for 10 years at the University of Lethbridge, near a Blackfoot reserve. The main characters in Green Grass reflect his familiarity with that world: they are real and varied, defying stereotypes. At one point, a white man complains: "You guys aren't real Indians anyways. I mean, you drive cars, watch television, go to hockey games."
The plot defies summary. In part it traces the lives of five Blackfoot Indians whose paths intersect in the town of Blossom or on the reserve. Lionel Red Dog, a mild-mannered underachiever, sells TVs and stereos. He is in love with Alberta Frank, a university professor of native studies who wants a child but not necessarily a husband. Alberta also dates Charlie Looking Bear, a slick lawyer who represents a company that owns a massive hydroelectric dam. The company is involved in a 10-year lawsuit with Eli Stands Alone, Lionel's uncle, whose small property blocks the dam's spillway, keeping it from operating. And there is Latisha, Lionel's sister, who runs the Dead Dog Café, a tourist trap that purports to sell dog meat as a "traditional" native meal. In fact, the "Houndburgers, Saint Bernard Swiss Melts and Deep-Fried Puppy Whatnots" are beef. The tourist buses roll in daily.
Weaving in and out of those individual stories is a wildly surreal account of four aged Indians who have mysteriously disappeared from an asylum. Their many previous escapes have coincided with several real-life disasters, including the stock market crash of 1929. Each of the Indians, called Hawkeye, the Lone Ranger, Ishmael and Robinson Crusoe, takes a turn as narrator, often with Coyote interrupting.
The storytelling is strewn with puns, literary allusions, tongue-in-cheek asides and comic revisions of Western religious beliefs. In one segment about the Garden of Eden, an Eve-like figure called First Woman brings home food from a talking tree: apples, melons, bananas, hotdogs, fry bread, corn, potatoes, pizza and extra-crispy fried chicken. But God is upset. He objects to talking trees and says: "Wait a minute. That's my garden. That's my stuff." First Woman packs up and leaves—as do all the animals, refusing to live with such a stingy neighbor. Meanwhile, God shouts, "You can't leave because I'm kicking you out."
As that and other Christian myths get mangled in the retelling, the cumulative effect is not so much disrespectful as distancing. By portraying biblical stories from a native point of view, King shows how illogical and foreign the natives found the Christian religion. And without resorting to polemics, he illustrates how white culture misinterpreted, ridiculed and even outlawed native beliefs.
King deftly handles the complex plotting, using short chapters that frequently shift the point of view. It is disorienting at first: the fast rhythm and sudden detours keep the reader off balance. But the technique works, creating suspense about how all the disparate story lines will come together. And King's sense of glee is infectious as he indulges in a form of literary and historical name-dropping: everyone from Susanna Moodie to Nelson Eddy shows up.
Much of King's subject matter is darkly tragic. The self-pity of Alberta's drunken, abusive father and the degradation that Charlie's actor father felt when he was forced to wear a false nose in the movies are part of the same burden of prejudice. And underneath lies a legacy of betrayal: the title's "green grass, running water" refers to a standard phrase in land treaties that was supposed to guarantee Indian rights in perpetuity.
Still, in the spirit of Coyote, King maintains a light, mischievous touch throughout. Tellingly, one of his characters remarks, "There are no truths, only stories." Green Grass, Running Water offers several stories, all original, witty and stylishly executed, and all adding up to more than a little bit of truth.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1227
SOURCE: "Has Red Dog Gone White?" in The New York Times Book Review, July 25, 1993, p. 21.
[McManus is an American novelist, short story writer, poet, and educator. In the following mixed review of Green Grass, Running Water, he examines the novel's structure.]
"As long as the grass is green and the waters run" is a phrase indicating perpetuity in 18th- and 19th-century treaties that ceded Indian land to the Governments of the United States and Canada. The Cherokee writer Thomas King uses the phrase in his second novel, Green Grass, Running Water, to underscore contemporary skepticism and rage about documents signed under duress several generations ago.
Even the hapless Blackfoot, Lionel Red Dog, a television and stereo salesman who is the novel's central character, can recognize the malignant, if unintended, irony:
It was a nice phrase, all right. But it didn't mean anything…. Every Indian on the reserve knew that. Treaties were hardly sacred documents. They were contracts, and no one signed a contract for eternity. No one. Even the E-Z Pay contracts Bursum [Lionel's condescending white boss] offered to his customers to help make a complete home entertainment system affordable never ran much past 5 or 10 years. Even with the balloon payment.
Such treaties continue to be enforced, of course, even though the prairie around the Blackfoot reserve in Alberta is no longer green enough to support any game, and the province has literally stopped the waters from running by damming a sacred tribal river.
The narrative whorling around Lionel's midlife crisis and the not unrelated completion of the dam consists of eight major strands; from the opening pages we begin to feel uneasy about whether Mr. King will be able to braid them together effectively. In the most allegorical dimension, four ancient Indian shamans both comment on and help to determine the earthbound action in a manner that crossbreeds Greek, Indian and biblical creation myths.
There are also politically correct sendups of Columbus and Hollywood westerns, a pastiche of 19th-century social and literary values featuring Moby-Jane, Changing Woman and a running ontological debate between the Trickster Coyote and God over such issues as water, the First Woman and her male companion "Ahdamn." The tone of these episodes is broadly farcical, often to the point of cartoonishness: "So along comes this earthquake. Rumble, rumble, rumble, rumble, says that Earthquake. This is fun."
Lionel's story is more naturalistically told. About to turn 40, out of shape and unmarried, he is unable to decide whether to stay on at Bursum's store or go back to college. He is also torn by a fear that he may have "gone white," a feeling that stems from, among other sources, his childhood desire to be John Wayne. Not John Wayne the actor, but (far worse) the hero portrayed by the actor: "the John Wayne who saved stagecoaches and wagon trains from Indian attacks."
By way of contrast, Lionel's uncle, Eli Stands Alone, is single-handedly blocking the completion of the dam by refusing to vacate his mother's ancestral cabin. The dam has already produced thousands of acres of lakefront real estate, most of which has been sold to such affluent outsiders as Bursum and Charlie Looking Bear, the handsome and cynical lawyer who represents the dam construction conglomerate and who is competing with Lionel for the affections of Alberta Frank. Alberta, a college professor from Calgary, is desperate to become pregnant but she remains unpersuaded that either Charlie or Lionel—any man, for that matter—would make a very satisfactory husband.
Unlikely convergences and apocalyptic reversals soon begin to proliferate—orchestrated, we are told, by Coyote and the shamans. By the time the various subplots culminate at the annual Sun Dance celebration, the cast of human and mythological characters Mr. King has brought into play has become large, confusing and exceedingly talkative.
Such prolixity causes the novel to lose its momentum as Mr. King interrupts himself with continual explanatory flashbacks and point-of-view changes. Characters incessantly "talk past" one another, sometimes to genuinely comic effect. Too often, however, the result is a mishmash, as in this exchange between Lionel and his father:
"I'm thinking about going back to university."
"Good idea…. Maybe you want to give me a hand this weekend."
"You know if the band has any money for school?"
"Going to go to the mountains and cut some new poles."
"Bill Bursum offered me a job at his store."
"The old ones are pretty shot."
"Televisions and stereos. Pretty easy to sell."
"Sun Dance is coming up. Got to get the poles fixed up before then."
"Charlie used to work for him. Made 40, 50 thousand last year."
"Take part of a day. That's all."
That they continue in this vein for another 16 lines only makes the passage more representative of dozens of others, many of which involve three or four speakers. While parallel soliloquies often may constitute everyday conversations, especially between estranged sons and fathers, Mr. King's overuse of this device serves neither his comic aspirations nor his efforts at verisimilitude.
Mr. King's working premise is that the linear version of a story leaves out its most interesting aspects—that truth lies somewhere in the digressionary minutiae. When Lionel asks his uncle why he returned to the reservation after teaching for years in Toronto, Eli informs him: "Can't just tell you that straight out. Wouldn't make any sense. Wouldn't be much of a story."
Eli's point is certainly valid, especially since his own career as an author and professor, his troubled marriage to a white woman named Karen and his friendship with the dam's construction supervisor are all compelling in their personal and sociological complexity.
Mr. King, however, carries this premise several stages too far, both by making it repetitively explicit and by spending similar numbers of words on characters much less intriguing than Lionel or his uncle. His novel thus verges on becoming a reductive parody instead of a telling example of its own central narrative principle.
The book is nonetheless impressively ambitious and funny. Houndburger recipes and fabulist metaphysics, gender and environmental politics, Christian and Native American folklore, farcical humor and high moral seriousness, devastated ancient cultures confined on "reserves" in the middle of huge modern nations—to braid these together convincingly is a formidable task for a novelist to set for himself. In Green Grass, Running Water Mr. King hasn't quite brought it off.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 415
SOURCE: A review of One Good Story, That One, in Quill & Quire, Vol. 59, No. 9, September, 1993, p. 61.
[In the review below, Anderson offers praise for One Good Story, That One.]
It becomes pleasingly clear toward the end of Thomas King's first collection of short fiction [One Good Story, That One] that the title's one good story could be almost any of these 10 deceptively simple but forthright tales.
Drawing on a wealth of Native North American Indian lore and a rich storytelling tradition, as he did in 1990's Medicine River and again in this year's Green Grass, Running Water, King here bears the mark of a talented mimic, ably recreating in "Trap Lines" the resentful lip of a Native teenager who, despite his father's awkward entreaties to go fishing, would rather dangle alone in front of the television; and in "Magpies," the desperate pleas of an aged matriarch who, above all, fears a lonely hospital death.
Such familial backdrops are only half the story, however, as King steals easily into fantastic landscapes inhabited by blue coyote space aliens, singing totem poles, Christopher Columbus, and Adam and Eve. Curiously rhythmic in style, King's odd parables make for an unsettling blend of Christian and Native myths, comedy and tragedy, the everyday and the surreal. Never weighed down with description or details, the stories careen along, propelled so quickly by crisp dialogue and playful wit that one occasionally longs for the ballast of a well-wrought setting or characters who think more than they talk. And although King never obscures his intent—his stories have an arrow's sense of target—he misfires once or twice, too impatient is he to strike home his point.
If the white characters herein are mostly well-meaning country folk, they also come off as misdirected bumpkins—reckless gadabouts who may as well hail from the next galaxy as from Canada or the United States, so far are they from understanding Indians and their culture. To his credit, King stops short of self-righteous finger pointing and concerns himself instead with exploring what it means for Native people to seek their rightful place in a culture that doesn't know quite where to put them.
Told with humour and humility, these tales resonate with the inescapably anguished history of North American Indians. Like the coyote—that sly prankster of Native folklore who lurks close to the heart of King's work—these tales at once trap you in their jaws, tickle with waggish tongue, and howl with ironic wit.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 724
SOURCE: "News from the North," in The Horn Book Magazine, Vol. LXIX, No. 5, September-October, 1993, pp. 636-38.
[Ellis is a Canadian author of children's books, an educator, and a children's librarian. In the following excerpt, she applauds King's storytelling abilities and his focus on history, Native themes, and the marginalization of indigenous peoples in A Coyote Columbus Story.]
"At the margins is where the meanings are." This conviction, expressed by writer Thomas King, struck a chord in me, as I suspect it would for many children's writers and readers of children's books. The subversive quality of many "classic" children's books has been ably elucidated by Alison Lurie, and I think that quality, a quiet acceptance of alternative values, lives on in children's books even in this mass-market, "hit-driven," conservative publishing climate. King is better known as an adult writer, and the context of his remark was a response to an interview question about the motivation behind his oblique, playful, pun-filled, allusive style. But in his children's book A Coyote Columbus Story, King exhibits the same joyful celebration of life on the margins.
Last year's many debates on the occasion of the Columbus anniversary seemed to allow little room for a middle ground. Either Columbus, the textbook hero, "discovered" America or he was the first step in the ruination of that world. King provides a fresh perspective by moving the question from the arena of logical debate to the arena of pure story.
In A Coyote Columbus Story—and the indefinite article is significant—the whole mess is Coyote's fault. Coyote is the creator: "It was Coyote who fixed up this world, you know. She is the one who did it. She made rainbows and flowers and clouds and rivers. And she made prune juice and afternoon naps and toenail polish and television commercials." But she is far from infallible. In fact, this girl just wants to have fun. And fun is baseball.
But Coyote has trouble rustling up a team. The animals are too busy and earnest. So Coyote creates humans, who are initially keen on the game but get fed up with Coyote's arbitrary rule changes. Bored and distracted, Coyote then creates some new players. These turn out to be Christopher Columbus and his crew. Again Coyote is disappointed. This group has no interest in baseball: "We got work to do, they says. We got to find India. We got to find things we can sell."
Failing to find riches, Columbus and his men take slaves. The people are angry with Coyote, and she acknowledges that she made a mistake and promises to take Columbus back: "You'll see, everything will be balanced again." But her final efforts produce only Jacques Cartier and crew. Coyote, ever hopeful, greets the new gang with an invitation to play ball.
The whole story is written with a delightful abandonment of linear historical time. Anachronistic details abound. The humans reject baseball in favor of other activities: "Some of them go shopping. Some of them go sky diving. Some of them go to see big-time wrestling. Some of them go on a seven-day Caribbean cruise." The explorers list their expectations of the new world: "Yes, they says, where is that chocolate cake? Yes, they says, where are those computer games? Yes, they says, where are those music videos?" In the illustrations, by William Kent Monkman, Columbus wears Renaissance garb in lurid neon colors, and one of his crew is an Elvis impersonator. There is a moose in a bikini and curlers, a turtle in shades, and Coyote in high-tops and a jaunty pageboy hairstyle.
Woven through these high jinks, the values of the first nation's peoples are evident. The major failing of Columbus and his crew is their rudeness. Coyote laments, "These people I made have no manners. They act as if they've got no relations." The rhythm of the book is the cadence of native speech: "But you know, whenever Coyote and the human beings played ball, Coyote always won. She always won because she made up the rules. That sneaky one made up the rules, and she always won because she could do that." But what Coyote captures—a quality I've often heard in native storytelling, but less often seen expressed in print—is the spirit of cheekiness, a bold, outrageous iconoclastic energy that incorporates warmth and inclusiveness.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 597
SOURCE: "Comical and Economical," in Books in Canada, Vol. XXII, No. 7, October, 1993, pp. 36-7.
[In the following review, Radu examines King's use of voice and focus on Native themes in One Good Story, That One.]
Thomas King possesses an acute ear for dialogue and the English-language speech rhythms of his Native characters. In [One Good Story, That One] a collection that includes several narratives built upon oral storytelling techniques, the convincing use of dialect and specific vernacular is a major achievement.
The title story in One Good Story, That One, for example, deserves several readings, preferably aloud, to hear King's flawless use of voice and, equally important, to understand the essentially circular or non-linear structure of the telling.
Chronology also follows a pattern peculiar to Native art. The storyteller here does not move in a straight line but starts, shifts, slides off at a tangent, and incorporates anachronistic details as he recounts a parodic version of the Garden of Eden story.
Recited for the benefit of white cultural anthropologists, who remain shadowy stick-figures, "One Good Story, That One" may well be pulling their and the reader's leg. "Those ones like old stories, says my friend, maybe how the world was put together. Good Indian story like that, Napiao say."
"Magpies" is a wonderfully funny and affecting story about a Native woman called Granny who knows she is going to die of a bad leg very soon. Granny's sense of timing and her diagnosis may not be entirely accurate, but her wish to have her body handled in the traditional manner of her people, properly wrapped and placed among the branches of a cottonwood tree, is absolute. With an instinctive horror of hospitals and of the grave, a hole in the ground where "you put stew bones. Where you put old things that are broke," Granny makes Ambrose promise to dispose of her body according to Native customs. He's up against her daughter, Wilma, who insists on burial according to the rites of the Catholic Church, as well as the RCMP and even his own reputation for always "thinking about things to do" that never quite get done.
Also related by a Native storyteller, "Magpies" (the birds enjoy dining on eyes) is an excellent example of King's narrative control, but it also satirically dramatizes fundamental spiritual differences between Native and white society.
White society's inability or refusal to see the world through Native perspectives and to acknowledge Native customs and beliefs is demonstrated comically and economically in "Borders." Here a Native woman wishes to cross the Canadian-American border to visit her daughter in Salt Lake City. Asked to identify her nationality by border officials, she replies Blackfoot, and is thereby refused entry, becoming temporarily caught in white man's bureaucracy and insensitivity.
There are weaker stories in the collection. In "Totem," to name one, a noisy totem pole inexplicably appears in a museum, much to the curator's annoyance, and when cut down, grows back. Despite the allegorical implications, however, the story doesn't move much beyond its initial premise.
Other stories involve a mythological trickster figure called Coyote, and all of them are marked by King's distinctive tone of voice. Perhaps the best story of all is "A Seat in the Garden," a sharp and hilarious parody of the movie Field of Dreams, rendered from a Native point of view and well worth the price of admission. Despite a tendency to stereotype non-Natives as uncomprehending and officious, and despite a couple of narrative that are more sketchy than complete, One Good Story, That One is an engaging and worthwhile collection.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2752
SOURCE: An interview in paragraph, Vol. 16, No. 1, Summer, 1994, pp. 2-6.
[In the following interview, originally conducted in November 1993, King discusses various aspects of his writing and his Canadian, American, and Native identities.]
[Canton]: One of the themes that surfaces over and over again in your fiction is the question of identity: "What does it mean to be Indian? What does it mean to be Canadian?" Why do you think you keep coming back to those questions?
[King]: It's not a question that concerns me all that much personally, but it is an important question in my fiction. Because it's question that other people always ask. Readers demand an answer to it, and it's part of that demand for authenticity within the world in which we live. It's the question that Native people have to put up with. And it's a whip that we get beaten with—"Are you a good enough Indian to speak as an Indian?"
For Native people, identity comes from community, and it varies from community to community. I wouldn't define myself as an Indian in the same way that someone living on a reserve would. That whole idea of "Indian" becomes, in part, a construct. It's fluid. We make it up as we go along.
Some people don't see me as an Indian at all. I live in the city; I don't speak a Native language; I've never spent any large amount of time living on a reserve. But I'm not concerned with how people perceive me from the outside. I'm concerned with what I know and feel about myself. And for many Native people and groups, that's the identifying characteristic. We identify ourselves—and this may sound self-serving and solipsistic—and that's what counts.
And the community in which we exist defines us. Tomson Highway is a Native person because he is a part of that more traditional community he comes from, but also because he's part of the Native arts community here in Toronto, and we recognize and understand him as that.
In the story "Borders," in One Good Story, That One, the mother has never identified herself as anything other than Blackfoot—that's all she understands herself as—and it's the outside world that is unwilling and unable to see her as that.
For Eli, in Green Grass, Running Water, coming back to the reserve, he realizes that although he's been away for a long time, his place within that community is still there. But it's a changed place. It's not the same place that his sister Norma occupies.
That's one of the important issues in Green Grass, Running Water. Lionel learns that he doesn't have to question whether he's living up to what a "good" Indian is because he sells televisions. Nor is Charlie necessarily a better Indian because he's successful lawyer. I see your fiction breaking down some of those stereotypes from the inside as well as the outside.
I wanted to make sure that people understood that Eli and Charlie and Lionel and Portland are all Native people doing various things with their lives. I wanted to emphasize that the range of "Indian" is not as narrow as many people try to make it.
In Green Grass, Running Water, you have Portland going down to Hollywood because he wants to be an actor and work in "B" westerns. And he winds up succeeding. He went after what he wanted to be and he's done it. We do people who don't conform a disservice. Portland didn't have to go to Hollywood to be defined as an Indian.
Eli is an Indian and Charlie is an Indian and Lionel and Portland are Indians. The variety is infinite, and we'll continue to reconstruct that definition of what an Indian is. As times change, those constructions change.
Now, what remains the same is that firm base that we have in places—even if sometimes the places aren't our own to begin with. I'm [a] Cherokee from Oklahoma, but I don't think of Oklahoma as home. If I think of any place as home it's the Alberta prairies, where I spent ten years with the Blackfoot people. I'm not Blackfoot, but that feels like the place I want to go back to.
And you've explored those prairies in both your novels and in several of your short stories.
Don't ask me why. I hate the wind. It's so dry that your skin cracks open like a lizard in the sun. It's conservative. A lot of redneck activity goes on out there. I have no idea why I find it as intriguing as I do. Partly it's the people—the Blackfoot people in particular—but also the landscape. It's magnificent, and it draws my imagination. Whether it draws me back there, I don't know. But whenever I start to see a landscape in my imagination, that's the landscape I see.
You're a Canadian citizen and define yourself as a Canadian writer, but your most recent fiction seems to be more pan-Indian in its scope.
Consciously so, too. I can't really write about the reservation experience, but I can write about the experience that contemporary Indians have in trying to manage living in the more contemporary world while maintaining a relationship with that more traditional world—without even trying to define what those worlds are.
There are issues—not universal—that are important to take a look at. Authenticity is one, for me. Identity, in a very general sense, is one. And the issue of borders. I hold Canadian citizenship and think of myself as a Canadian writer because that's all I write about. At the same time, I hold U.S. citizenship, too. I can flop back and forth across the border like a big fish.
The novel that I'm working on now is set on the border. Two towns: one on either side of the border; one Indian, one white. It should be interesting to see how I play that out and how I make it work. There's a bridge in this novel that got half-finished and then they stopped. You can't get across unless you walk. And it's pretty dangerous to walk, but it's one of the few ways you can get across, back and forth, to these towns. They're separated by a river called the Shield.
The other issue that I can play with is that border between men and women.
In many ways, the women in your fiction are so much more intelligent than the men. In Green Grass, Running Water, I think of Norma and Latisha and Alberta. And the four old Indians who wander through the contemporary landscape were originally women who have taken on male identities …
… but may still be women. They're just dressed up as men.
It's not so much that the women are smarter than the men. Eli is quite intelligent, and so is Charlie, though he might be a bit of a sleaze. Lionel is just a little lost. My sense is that within society as a whole, men are simply more privileged and with that privilege comes a certain laziness.
The women in my books don't take things for granted. They work pretty hard to get what they want and have to make specific decisions to make their lives come together. For Alberta, the question isn't is she going to have a child—she damn well knows she's going to have one. Norma is like so many Indian women on the reserve who knew how a life should be lived and weren't afraid to tell you.
Lionel has had a pretty easy go of it and he hasn't made anything out of it. It's more a question of privilege and the effect that privilege has on you.
Do you feel you have a responsibility to accurately portray the Native community in your fiction?
That sense of responsibility is very important. As a Native writer—if you imagine yourself as that—there are certain responsibilities that you come away with. Within my fiction, there are things that I feel I can do and things I feel I can't do. Not because I'm forbidden to do them, but responsibility tells me I should not.
For instance, I don't think that I need stay away from some of the problems that Native communities face—alcoholism, drug abuse, child abuse—but I do have a responsibility not to make those such a part of my fiction that I give the impression to the reader that this is what drives Native communities. I'm very much concerned about that. It's my responsibility to make my readers understand what makes Native communities strong.
It doesn't serve the community to constantly have it held up for ridicule because of those problems. Those problems exist within non-Native society too.
In Green Grass, Running Water, there is a scene at the Sun Dance. I know that the Blackfoot don't allow cameras at the Sun Dance, and that includes the kind of camera that fiction turns on the event. You won't see any description of the Sun Dance itself, although you are there at the Sun Dance grounds. What you see is the communal milling around. I don't talk about how the men are dressed, or how they move, or the drum. All that's left to the imagination. And that's very purposely done. As a writer and as a non-Blackfoot, I don't feel that I have any business describing that.
One of the most rewarding aspects of your fiction is the way you explore the Native traditions of storytelling. How much of what is in Green Grass, Running Water is the result of research?
That's hard to say. I hate doing research. I do damned little. But when I was a graduate student working on my Ph.D., I did a section of my dissertation on oral stories. I did a lot of reading.
The other part is just in talking—not about oral stories or oral literature—but just talking to people. Every so often, somebody will say something, or they'll tell a story.
Harry Robinson was an influence. The oral work that he put into written English became very important to me as I went through Green Grass, Running Water.
What I learned from storytelling—from oral stories—was that those stories help to create a fantastic universe in which anything can happen. You're free to create that as you will. Which is freeing in the same way that I imagine magic realism and surrealism are freeing.
Oral stories taught me a little bit about repetition and the kind of cadences that you can create in a written piece of work that you normally only think of as associated with poetry. They taught me technical aspects of writing—not so much giving me the stories themselves.
Although sometimes the relationships that appear within the stories—those were key. How are those relationships established? How are they pushed forward through the story? Is there an adversarial relationship between the major elements and the major characters? Are there regular climaxes in those oral stories that you see in contemporary European-North American literature? And the answer to some of those questions is "no."
Green Grass, Running Water in many ways becomes a very flat book. It comes up to a particular level and tries to maintain itself at that level all the way through. It's not the climaxes of the novel that are important, it's what the characters do. They don't have to do big things—it's the little movements that tickle me. And I love puns. Talking to storytellers and to Native people in general has taught me the value of a good pun. Like the Nissan, the Pinto and the Karmann-Ghia.
Or Dr. Joe Hovaugh. Or the host of celebrities who pass through the Dead Dog Café. You have a lot of fun with those characters.
I picked those characters quite carefully—Jeanette Mac-Donald and Nelson Eddy, E. Pauline Johnson. And in addition to their power as entities within history, within film and literature, they also blur the line between reality and fiction and between what we think of as history and just gossip—between Indian and non-Indian. I love doing that—putting the reader on the skids. Especially if I can get them to go along with it.
Coyote plays a significant part in Green Grass, Running Water. Was it difficult to bring this traditional Native character into your novel?
The Coyote in Green Grass, Running Water is not a full-blown Coyote. My friend and fellow-writer Gerald Vizenor was disappointed by the Coyote I created in my novel, because it seemed a shadow of the real Coyote. Vizenor works with Coyote, and Vizenor's Coyote is much more complex than my Coyote.
What I needed in this particular novel was a sacred clown. Someone who could point out the fallacies in situations and arguments and who made sure that nothing stayed done. Whatever you tried to do, that particular figure would take apart. My Coyote wants to see the world in a slight state of turmoil.
In what way doesn't your Coyote go far enough?
There is a real range to Coyote—everything from benevolence to malevolence. Coyote is always in a state of flux. He has these huge appetites—sexual appetites, appetites for doing good and for doing bad—an entire range that I don't cover.
I use Coyote as a sacred clown, as a part of the chorus, if you will, and, in some ways, as a creator. But I use him within narrow lines, as a reaction to what's happening in the fiction. That was all I wanted to use Coyote for.
I don't think I'll write about Coyote again. One of the things I like about fiction is that you're not obligated to go back to the same topic time after time. Green Grass, Running Water is different from Medicine River, and the next novel will be different from Green Grass, Running Water. I don't think I'll ever do a novel like Green Grass, Running Water again.
I'm particularly interested in how you use humour in Green Grass, Running Water. It certainly has a double edge.
There's a great danger to humour. In general, people think of comedy as being not serious. I don't think this was true two hundred years ago. I'm thinking of Restoration comedy, Shakespeare, the European models, without even getting into the Native models.
If you write humorous material, or if you write comedy, the great danger is that they will not take you seriously. I think of myself as a dead serious writer. Comedy is simply my strategy. I don't want to whack somebody over the head, because I don't think that accomplishes much at all.
There's a fine line to comedy. You have to be funny enough to get them laughing so they really don't feel how hard you hit them. And the best kind of comedy is where you start off laughing and end up crying, because you realize just what is happening halfway through the emotion. If I can accomplish that, then I succeed as a storyteller.
But I think this is tied up with the way we read. There are so many distractions. Unless you make the effort to sit down with everything else off and nothing going on in the house, you don't come away being as good a reader as you might be.
I think the number of good readers is probably limited. Whenever I get on a plane, for example, I never see somebody reading Cormac McCarthy or even Margaret Atwood. Normally, I see people reading Tom Clancy, or something that you can buzz through because you know nothing is going to happen in the narrative. Nothing's going to happen in the construction and the syntax of the sentence. You're not going to find yourself saying, "What a turn of phrase!"
For me, that's what fine fiction is about. It's in the sentence. It lies at the heart of syntax. I think most serious writers are very much concerned about what each one of those sentences do. How they work within an almost stanza-like construction. That's what I go for.
Poetry may be an economical way of creating these wonderful effects, but good fiction is not far behind it. It's a quality that you try to strive for in fiction. Poe said that poetry should aspire to the quality of music. The same holds true for the fiction that I do.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 666
SOURCE: A review of One Good Story, That One, in World Literature Today, Vol. 69, No. 1, Winter, 1995, p. 201.
[In the following review of One Good Story, That One, Gorjup lauds King's ability to blend elements of Native and Western storytelling techniques.]
Thomas King is undoubtedly one of Canada's most respected native writers. His fiction—at a time when fiction is often used by militant authors for overt political reasons—is humorous, magical, and unpretentious, refusing to take itself seriously yet always mindful of the reader's intelligence. The voice of his typical narrator is sly, multilayered, and deliberately vague, reflecting the complexity of the subject at hand, which inevitably deals with the tension that arises from civilizational clashes between Natives and Europeans. The narrator, like the story he tells, is "unreliable": he continually reinvents the world and himself. He assumes the characteristics of the coyote, a popular trickster spirit of native folklore.
King's new prose collection, One Good Story, That One, provides an excellent sampling of his remarkable talent, which draws extensively on his ability to blend Western literary conventions and native oral tradition. The result is an exquisitely crafted, authentically grounded, and very funny collection. The title story ["One Good Story, That One"] lures the reader into the magic of an orally constructed world whose narrator, a traditional storyteller, visibly delights in getting off the main topic. His meandering, of course, tries the patience of the two white anthropologists whose purpose is to collect and to preserve "old," uncontaminated Indian myths and legends about the creation of the world. But since in King's world uncontaminated stories do not exist, the old narrator tells the story of Ah-Damn and Evening. The Indian's modified or "Indianized" version of the famous Judeo-Christian myth is both a humorous appropriation of European civilization and its serious criticism.
In another creation story, "The One About Coyote Going West," the narrator irreverently pokes fun at the creator, a slovenly coyote, whose newly made world is a big mess and whose subsequent attempts to fix it result in disarray. Because a big mistake is one of the first things she creates, her authority is undermined, leaving others—the otter, the mink, and the ducks—emboldened to start producing their own parts of the universe, thus challenging the coyote's master plan and the notion of prescribed hierarchy.
What King's storytellers seem to be relating to us at another level is that we must be careful what we conceive in our minds. Once things are imagined, like the big mistake, they become real and cannot be easily taken back. In "A Coyote Columbus Story" the storyteller inverts the old cliché of Columbus's discovery of America and of the Indians. Instead, it is Old Coyote who discovers Columbus, inventing him and his men in order to have someone to play ball with—her Indians refuse to play because she keeps changing the rules of the game so that she can always win. But what a big mistake it was to conceive Columbus and his men. They had no time for playing anyway, as they scurried around looking for China and things to sell. Old Coyote tries now to take them back, but he cannot.
The collection's most moving and disturbing story is "Borders." Here King suddenly changes focus from a mythical and surrealistic landscape to a more identifiable place, a border crossing between Canada and the U.S., a place which can be, depending on who is crossing it, either commonplace or frightfully absurd, a sort of waiting-for-Godot ditch. For a Blackfoot woman, because she refuses to declare her citizenship as either Canadian or U.S., the act of crossing turns into a prolonged nightmare: she becomes stuck in a no-man's land as the authorities send her back and forth between the two borders. The woman, however, does not seem upset at her white victimizers. If she is upset with anyone at all, it is probably with that coyote who invented the white man and his strange institution.
Last Updated on February 4, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 229
Compton, Valerie. Review of Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King. Quill & Quire 59, No. 3 (March 1993): 46.
Favorable assessment of Green Grass, Running Water in which Compton lauds King's revisionist approach to history and incorporation of Native oral traditions.
Davenport, Gary. "Fiction and the Furniture of Consciousness." The Sewanee Review C, No. 2 (Spring 1992): 323-30.
Applauds King's use of comedy and evocation of place in Medicine River.
Howells, Coral Ann. "Imagining Native." Canadian Literature, Nos. 124-25 (Spring-Summer 1990): 307-08.
Positive review of The Native in Literature. Howells offers analyses of several of the pieces in this collection, noting: "The essays engage issues of the representation of the Native (Indians, Inuit, Australian Aborigines) in colonial and post-colonial discourse, the majority of them exploring images of natives and native cultures encoded in white writing (from explorers' narratives to post-modernist fiction) although several focus on native storytelling traditions and one on contemporary Inuit literature."
Meredith, Howard. Review of The Native in Literature, by Thomas King, Cheryl Calver, and Helen Hoy, eds. World Literature Today 63, No. 4 (Autumn 1989): 723-24.
Favorable assessment of The Native in Literature. Meredith writes that this "is the first major work of literary analysis to deal with American Indian and Inuit subject matter in a Canadian context."
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