Thomas King King, Thomas (Vol. 89) - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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."

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Larry Evers (review date November 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.

Margaret Atwood (essay date Spring-Summer 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jack Butler (review date 23 September 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

Thomas King with Constance Rooke (interview date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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 entire section is 6121 words.)

Percy Walton (essay date Autumn 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jim Bencivenga (review date 3 October 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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M. A. Gillies (review date Winter 1991)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Jace Weaver (essay date 8 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Richard Eder (review date 25 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 837 words.)

Brad Knickerbocker (review date 31 March 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 552 words.)

Eric McCormack (review date April 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Diane Turbide (review date 3 May 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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James McManus (review date 25 July 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

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Scott Anderson (review date September 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Sarah Ellis (review date September-October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Kenneth Radu (review date October 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Thomas King with Jeffrey Canton (interview date November 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Branko Gorjup (review date Winter 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


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."...

(The entire section is 229 words.)