Green Grass, Running Water

GreenGrassRunningWaterIs it possible to enjoy a book you don’t understand? I think it is. I certainly enjoyed Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King, but there’s a lot of it that I didn’t understand.

The novel blends the stories of ordinary people from a Blackfoot community in Canada with the observations and activities of four older Indians who tell each other stories as they undergo a quest to fix the world. The stories merge at the Sun Dance in the small town of Blossom.

The characters made this novel for me. Each one seemed so real, and their dilemmas so honest. Most of the principal characters are, in one way or another, trying to figure out how to live in the modern world while also honoring (or not) the traditions rooted in the past. It’s a universal dilemma, really, but King grounds the dilemma in how the characters approach the particular Blackfoot tradition of the Sun Dance. Some attend every year, and some do not. Some are there to please others, and some are there because it’s just what they do. And some don’t even seem to know why they go.

I was especially taken with the story of Eli Stands Alone, a man who first appears in his family’s small cabin, which he refuses to leave in protest of the building of a dam. It’s remarkable that he took this stand, because he spent many years away from his family and his people, refusing to attend the Sun Dance even when his wife Karen, a white woman, longed to go again. I appreciated the complex way King depicted Karen’s enthusiasm for Eli’s traditions and Eli’s feelings about her interest.

Lionel is another character I liked a lot, mostly because he felt so utterly real. A 40-year-old television salesman, Lionel was expected to be much more than he is. But he was never particularly motivated, and his lackadaisical approach to life got him into some legal trouble while he was at university, and he was never able to get his degree. He keeps saying he’s going to go back, but it’s hard to know whether he wants to or whether he senses everyone else’s disappointment in him.

And then there’s Alberta, Lionel’s lover. She’s a college professor who is involved with both Lionel and the lawyer Charlie Looking Bear. She doesn’t particularly want to give either man up, although she’s not sure she loves either one. Neither one really seems like an appropriate father for the child she wants to have, so she methodically works out her options, only to find that life doesn’t follow her logical rules.

These realistic stories appear alongside the story of four Indians who mysteriously vanished from a hospital room and are making their way to Blossom. As they travel, the four women each tell a creation story that draws on biblical images and on images from Western culture. In these stories, they take on the identities of the Lone Ranger, Hawkeye, Ishmael, and Robinson Crusoe. I found these sections fascinating for their subversive qualities, but I didn’t entirely understand what King was up to in these sections.

At times, it seems like these stories are meant to be re-imaginings of legends that often reduced Native Americans to stereotypes, if not leaving them out altogether. The Lone Ranger story seems especially empowering to both Indians and women. I think, too, there might be something going on involving Native American’s role in their own troubles. The Hawkeye story in particular gives that impression because Hawkeye lets herself be defined by others—but how could she know the consequences of going along with them? And what other choice did she have?

There’s also the Coyote, whose role in all the stories is difficult to nail down. He’s mischievous, and he acts as a companion to the novel’s unnamed narrator and the four old Indians. And he seems to be the mover behind some of the stranger events in the book. In understand that King is drawing the character from Indian oral traditions, but I don’t know those stories well enough to get at the significance of what he’s doing.

Whatever the meaning of the book actually is, I found it fascinating to think about. The twists on familiar tales and the realism of the characters made this a pleasure to read. If any of you have read it, I’d love to hear your take on some of the more mystical elements. And if you can point me toward any articles or reviews that delve into that aspect of the novel, I’d be glad to read them!

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6 Responses to Green Grass, Running Water

  1. Hi, Teresa. I was very interested to read your review of this book of which I hadn’t heard before. I’m always interested in folk tales and revisions and re-imaginings of folk tales, and this sounds like a very good book indeed. When you said that the figure of Coyote was in it, I was especially enthused, because i really like the tradition of trickster tales in various world cultures, and nearly every culture I’ve ever read from has one. Coyote is a sort of cross between Loki (in the Norse myths) and Br’er Rabbit (in Joel Chandler Harris’s tellings of various African American slave tricksters–in his case, though his stories were literary, many of their themes were originally from tales of the clever slave, which recur in tales and legends all the way from the classical Greek and Roman slave world to the American one. Some of the tales and legends are literary, some are folk-derived). This, of course, may put the Native American Coyote in an unfair frame, in that it is original to its own surroundings, and is neither derivative of Loki and Br’er Rabbit nor imitative of them. Still, the trickster figure does many similar things in many cultures. You asked for any books on the subjects you mentioned and as I have gassed on and on about the trickster, I was reminded of a book someone gave me which I thoroughly enjoyed from this type of story. It’s called “American Indian Trickster Tales,” selected and edited by Richard Erdoes and Alfonso Ortiz and published by Penguin Books. I see by the info on their front cover that they also have another book out which I can’t speak about because I haven’t read it, but it might be of interest to you as well–it’s called “American Indian Myths and Legends.” I hope I haven’t bored you, and I’m sorry to be unable to comment more closely on other aspects of your review, such as specific Blackfoot traditions and the cultural milieu(s) of present-day Native Americans. But maybe I will learn more about those things by reading the book you recommend. Thanks again for your review.

    • Teresa says:

      I think familiarity with those trickster stories would have enhanced my understanding of this book, so thanks for that book suggestion! And yes, if you like re-imaginings of folk tales, you should definitely check this out–the way he blended so many different kinds of stories is really interesting.

  2. Maggie says:

    I read this book years ago and always wondered why it hadn’t received more attention, so I am thrilled to see you sharing it with your readers. I can’t offer a lot of insights about the mysticism, but I can say as the commenter does above that the Trickster is a common figure in many Native American cultures, and to understand this character requires a certain suspension of linear thinking. You might like “The Way to Rainy Mountain” (, which although coming from a Kiowa tradition also has multiple narrative voices and accomplishes something similar to “Green Grass, Running Water,” perhaps even more successfully. I think of both of these books as stories to be felt and sensed as well as understood on a more cerebral way.

    • Teresa says:

      I like what you say about feeling and sensing, rather than understanding in a cerebral way. I think that gets at why this book worked for me, even though I didn’t understand a lot of it. The feeling behind it is still there.

      And thanks for that recommendation–it sounds great!

  3. Jeane says:

    It sounds interesting to me, although I’m not sure I would understand it any better! Those kinds of books are always fun to revisit later on, don’t you think?

    • Teresa says:

      I think this would be fun to revisit, especially after reading some other trickster stories. And sometimes knowing the ending makes it easier to see patterns put in place at the beginning.

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