Review: Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

Author: Thomas King
Title: Green Grass, Running Water
Format/Source: ebook/Library
Published: March 1993
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Length: 469 pages
Genre: Humour + magical realism
Why I Read: CBC Books’ pick for March; want to read more Indigenous literature
Read If You’re: Appreciative of a different sort of humour; interested in Indigenous stories
Quote: “I am very sleepy, says Thought Woman, and then she goes back to sleep. Hee-hee, says that River. Hee-hee.” (198).
Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

Green Grass, Running Water is the CBC Books’ Goodreads group pick for this month, and another book for my Indigenous Canadian authors list. Green Grass, Running Water first came on my radar a few years ago, during my time tutoring. Some students came to me with papers on the story. I don’t remember what the papers were about (I think they were comparative?) but somehow, I didn’t get the impression that this is a funny book. I expected a deep, serious story, full of vast symbolism. Well, it’s definitely full of symbolism, but certainly not as solemn as I expected. Humorous satire plays a huge role in this book.

“Why are you talking to animals? says the little man. This is a Christian ship. Animals don’t talk. We got rules.” (125).

I might even recommend it for someone who wants a laugh (if they’re ready to work for it). However, I wonder how much of the humour depends on understanding some of the symbolism, or the cultural/historical context. My advantage came from the Aboriginal spirituality courses I took in university. I think without that, the Coyote and four Elders threads would have been beyond my understanding (and that’s just one major example – plenty of less significant bits would have gone by me as well.)
I made many small notes whenever something in the story clicked for me. There are many things I understood only a little bit, things I recognized I didn’t understandd (the significance of the puddles…), and probably plenty more things I didn’t even know I didn’t understand (a good example of this is the names of the bit characters – Jennifer’s posts in the Goodreads discussion brought this light). So, I was very pleased with myself when something, even if it was obvious, did click! This is a book that could benefit from multiple readings. But, I think some outside research would be necessary to understand a lot of it, for those of us who aren’t history buffs. I may hit up a reader’s guide. King has said understanding every reference isn’t critical to understanding the story, but now that I know they’re there, I want to understand them!
Because there is so much going on, much of it without context, I wonder – what’s the author’s purpose in writing this sort of story? How much will his readers get out of it? What does he want them to get out of it? But then I think “Screw it! Why am I always asking this question?” Even though I don’t think authorial intent is important to consider when understanding a story, I guess I think that if I know the author’s intent, I could garner something from a book I didn’t really understand. When I don’t understand something seems to be the only time I ask the question…if I get something out of a book, it doesn’t matter what the author intended – that book succeeded for me in some way. I wrote a bit more about this early in the Goodreads discussion (I wondered how much work should an author leave to the reader in understanding the cultural and historical backgrounds of a novel). Anyway. That’s this review’s tangent for you.
This is an Aboriginal story that touches on a lot of ‘issues’ without those ‘issues’ being the main purpose of the story. It goes beyond specific tragic circumstances (for example, residential schools abuse, alcoholism, etc.) to explore a broader picture of Indigenous people trying to find their place in today’s world, a balance between tradition and modernity. I think this quote sums up what the policies and attitudes Indigenous people are left to face today:

“Who’d have guessed there would still be Indians kicking around in the twentieth century?” (121)

I’d be remiss to not mention that this book is chock-full of great characters. My favourites were Alberta, a no-nonsense character I admired, Lionel, who’s really trying, and Babo, who understands more of what’s going on than the rest of us, probably.

The Bottom Line: Even though a lot of this story probably went over my head, I enjoyed the story lines and characters.

 Further Reading: