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Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King.

September 19, 2012

Green Grass, Running Water, by Thomas King.
Bantum Books, 1993. Paperback, 469 pages.
A delightful contemporary Native American novel full of magical realism.

Thomas King has crafted a wonderful novel with intersecting plotlines about Blackfoot Indians in Alberta, Canada, and the whites with whom they interact. Characters include Eli, who sits in his cabin keeping a dam from being activated,; Latisha, who was once married to a white man and now runs the Dead Dog Café (serving dog meat to gullible tourists); Alberta, who is a college prof  wanting a baby but not a husband, and the two men she dates;  Lionel, who drifts in a dead-end job and Charlie, the rich Indian lawyer at a white law firm. Other family members and collaeges drift in and out of the story.

In addition there are the “four old Indians”, who aren’t Indians but literary figures (the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and Robinson Crusoe). They wander through the story retelling variations of Native American creation stories. In addition, they intend to “fix the world.” In the small ways their magic allows, the four “help” the other characters in the novel. Coyote also appears, throwing everyone’s plans into chaos when he sings and dances. The result is laugh-out-loud funny, in the sly manner of groups who use humor as a survival tool.

Only King’s skill holds together this scattered story. Despite all the shifting between plots, the book is totally accessible without the confusion of some experimental fiction. One unifying image is the John Wayne western which various characters watch, each reacting to it in his or her own way. Interaction of the various families also connects the characters. They come together at the annual sun dance, each pitching their tents in their accustomed places.

King is Cherokee and head of Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota. He brings academic and personal knowledge to the creation of this book. His book is more generically Native American than tied to the culture of any one tribe. His critique of how Indians have been treated by whites is often made with humor. In addition, King is sensitive to problems other than those which are specific to tribal people. His one black character demonstrates that Indians aren’t alone in being discounted by the white world. King’s sensitive eye not only picks out issues that typically face Indians, he also allows his women characters to express their frustration at men in criticism that transcends cultures.

The title of the book is a play on the phrase used in Indian treaties promising them land “as long as the grass is green and the water runs.” King shows how despite the broken promises, the Native Americans are still alive and well, retaining their own version of their heritage.

I strongly recommend this book as both enjoyable and insightful for a wide range of readers.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. September 19, 2012 4:48 pm

    Now that is what I call an intriguing book cover. And I especially like that the publisher commissioned it for a mass market paperback. Today it would probably have one of those inane stock images that fail-to-grace the books of even our best writers, or even worse, just a textured text cover that conveys nothing at all about the book.
    But this one, even without me having read the book, speaks to me of wholistic beliefs about man and nature, that they are one and indivisible. I like it a lot.

    • September 20, 2012 8:22 am

      Yes, I agree about the cover. The book is intriguing, too. An interesting variation of what Indigenous authors do with their traditions or how traditions simultaneously change and endure. I just started another of King’s books, The Truth about Stories, a series of lecture/stories he gave. Excellent. Not your usual reading, but both fun and expanding. I have recently read several Indigenous writers who use their traditional magical or supernatural forces in their stories. Actually Carpentaria does that.

      • September 20, 2012 8:25 am

        Yes, Carpentaria is a fascinating book. I need to read it again before long…

  2. September 24, 2012 10:16 am

    Interesting! I’m actually reading this book later this fall (late-October). I was already looking forward to it, but even moreso now.

    • September 27, 2012 11:19 am

      Glad you are going to read this. King is very interesting, a lit prof and director of Native American Studies. Hence his 4 non-Indians in Grass. I am reading his Truth about Stories which has an excellent discussion of NA lit since Momaday in 1968. Might fit with your academic focus. I’ll review it soon.

      And I look forward to your GLBT blog tour ahead.

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  1. Me, you, and books
  2. The Truth about Stories, by Thomas King. « Me, you, and books

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