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Truth and Bright Water, by Thomas King.

February 15, 2013

Truth & Bright Water, by Thomas King.  New York : Atlantic Monthly Press, c1999.

A moving coming of age story about an Indian boy on the US/Canadian border.

I love Thomas King’s writing.  Once I read the first page of this book, I couldn’t put it down.  I especially love his depictions of the land and the river and the wind and sky that swirl around them. And his humor.  As I read this book, however, I had the haunting feeling that I was missing something.

This book tells of one summer in the life of a 15-year-old Indian boy who lives beside a river separating the United States and Canada.  The river also separates the small town of Truth and the Indian reservation Bright Water.  An unfinished, deserted bridge over the river is the link between them.  Although the place and the characters are sharply drawn, the plot is minimal.  The narrator and his cousin and best friend hang out.  The narrator helps a weird, but famous, hometown artist who is “reconstructing” an abandoned mission church.  King’s writing seems conventional, at least on the surface.  The narrative of the summer’s events is interspersed with flashbacks and brief stories that have no obvious place in the larger story.  Unless the artist, Monroe, can make the church really disappear by painting it, there is none of the magical realism that King uses so effectively in Green Grass, Running Water. In this early book, King introduces several images he develops in later books such as the Dead Dog Café and the display of TV arranged in the shape of the United States.

Some symbolism and layers of meaning are obvious, like the river dividing the communities, but as I read, I felt confused and like the point of the book had passed me by. Was the problem mine or did King intend for me to feel this way?  When I thought back over the book I realized that King didn’t tell me the name of the narrator of the book or whether the people who lived in the small town of Truth were Indians or Anglos.  I realized that he had not resolved most of the mysteries that he presented.  What had happened in the past between the narrator’s mother, father, aunt, and some unidentified man?  Who was the unknown baby in the photograph?  Was Cassie really pregnant?  If not, what was all that about baby clothes?  Why does the book end as it does, leaving more confusion and grief.  The Library of Congress has categorized the book as about BOYS and FRIENDSHIP, but more is obviously going on than just that.

Finally I realized that King meant for Truth and Bright Water to present the uncertainly, confusion and loss experienced by a Native American teenager with no clear idea about his future and his past.  The narrator’s father exhibits the problems. Well-meaning, but irresponsible and clueless, the father still loves the wife from whom he is separated.  None of his ideas for getting rich quick have any merit. He can’t even finish the carpentry work in his shop or fix the car he bought.  There is no hope he will ever become the hero he had dreamed of being as a boy.  Other men in the town and on the reservation exhibit similar weaknesses.  While the artist initially appeared to be a male role model, in the end, he too has little to offer.  King is critical of such men, but also sympathetic about the few alternatives they have had.   As in other books by King, the women are more savvy and practical, but also lacking in concrete power. Perhaps it is relevant that his own father left his mother to raise their children alone.

Other legacies from their past offer no better alternative for the narrator and his cousin.  “Indian Days” designed to get money from tourists and the artist’s “reconstructions” are hardly enough to instill hope and pride.

As I read, I was struck by the similarities between this book and The Round House, by Louise Erdrich.  Both focus on boys of about the same age, footloose over the summer. Both are  “coming of age”novels, not primarily about sexuality as much as about identity, confusion, and lack of direction.  King’s narrative doesn’t have the intensity and fast-moving plot of Erdrich’s story, but in the end that doesn’t seem to matter.  The question they both address is ‘What can a man, a Native American man, do, to protect those he loves?  But King uses his humor to make us laugh rather than cry.  That is one of my favorite aspects of his writing.

I enjoyed this book and pondering over it, and strongly recommend it to other readers, especially those interested in Indigenous people in North America and willing to explore beneath the surface of the narrative.

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