Thomas King’s 1993 novel Green Grass, Running Water is not written like a typical narrative novel, with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, the work functions as a strange, compelling mixture of myth and fictional anthology, with a series of concurrent stories being told at once. King’s incredibly deft handling of this mixture of stories, which runs the gamut from outright myths to Judeo-Christian creation stories to tales of the everyday, creates a style that sits somewhere between Indian oral tradition and Western fiction literature. This allows for a unique exploration of the way these two cultures mix, the yearning of Aboriginals to restore some kind of balance to the Earth and nature, and the way we lend otherworldly significance to what are otherwise ordinary events.
King’s style is highly appropriate in light of the book’s focus on Native Americans and how they survive in a world that increasingly marginalizes and silences their own narratives. Acting as a unique blend of Western and Aboriginal cultures and legends, as well as a mix of written and oral tradition, Green Grass, Running Water offers an unconventional, complicated and constantly shifting style to illustrate the battle between these two cultures, as well as the places where they intersect. While the effect is fragmented and complex to follow at times, this elicits a feeling in the reader that is likely similar to the aboriginal forced to acclimate to a new culture they themselves are not used to. As European-American culture forces them to learn the Bible, takes over their land, puts them in mental institutions and builds dams over their rivers, natives must struggle to maintain their own culture and traditions. To that end, King’s focus on a storytelling style that pushes and pulls between the two cultures demonstrates that sense of confusion, frustration and alienation.
The book’s prose style is worth note, particularly given its ability to fluctuate between formal fiction prose and informal speech in equal measure. The first line of the book itself is a simple “So,” starting the work as if the narrator is preparing us for the telling of a story – the kind of single-word setup that transitions readers and listeners into opening themselves up to storytelling (King 1). King also helpfully allows the characters to ‘pass’ along the totem of storyteller between one another, signaling a change in narrators with the repeated phrase “This according to [character name]” (King). This helps to cement the book’s firm rooting in oral tradition, highlighting its ability to allow multiple speakers and narrators to influence the story (even though it is all funneled through the overall authority of the main narrator).
However, this tradition is further complicated by mixing native creation myths with those of Christianity. The book’s beginning story – what follows after the “so” – is essentially a spin on the biblical tale of Noah and the Flood: “In the beginning there was nothing. Just the water” (King 1). By mixing the tale of Noah with the story of Coyote’s dream, folk narratives are combined with Christian creation myths to provide a sense of intertextuality and universality to these various stories. “is that the biblical story itself exists as an intertextual construct and that the problem precipitating the Flood is a violation of established category boundaries rather than human depravity” (Donaldson 30). In essence, both the Bible and the Native creation myths all come from a similar, communal place, which is expressed in the various narrators’ conflating of the two sets of myths as one and the same.
King’s unique blend of white and Indian myths and legends allows for a sense of unifying humanity to be reached with the characters and story, while also showcasing the unique differences between the two theologies. The majority of the work follows four escapees from an Aboriginal mental institution, who nonetheless have decidedly Western cultural nicknames - Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe and Hawkeye. Even with these Westernized identities, they are deeply connected to native women who are themselves mythic creatures – the Lone Ranger to the First Woman, Ishmael to the Changing Woman, Robinson Crusoe to the Thought Woman, and Hawkeye to the Old Woman. At the same time, they each tell a different creation story that is deeply mired in Judeo-Christian myth, thus placing them in a constantly wavering position in a spectrum between Indian and Christian cultures and traditions. By offering up Christian myths along with their own native tradition, the mix of the two cultures tends to blur, which is part of King’s intention to show the ways in which myths become universal, as well as how natives are forced to give up their own traditions in order to survive in a white world.
This push and pull between the origins of myths helps King to illustrate the conflict between the colonialism of white Christian culture onto Indian culture, making the book at least partially about the struggle to maintain an identity in a land that has co-opted the Indian people. According to Donaldson, “the desire for the signifier and the indeterminacy of intertextuality are deeply engaged in the postcolonial struggle of American Indians against cultural and religious relations of power-knowledge” (29). Just as King starts to reconcile that the Christian and Aboriginal stories may be one and the same, there are hints within the novel’s style that indicates a desire to show that native myths are just as valid and important as the vastly more popular Christian myths. Nonetheless, King’s storytelling remains flexible enough that these two sets of competing myths blend together in an intertextual whole, focusing on the messages rather than the source.
Despite this universality, there is still a tremendous amount of commentary through the work’s style on the imperialism of written cultures over the oral – after all, the form of the book is King attempting to assert the prose style of oral tradition into that of literate tradition. Even as the work begins with a sincere attempt to tell an authentic native story, the “I” narrator (themselves a distinct character within the narrative) must deal with the Coyote, who constantly asserts the down-to-earth narrative tradition of literacy and directness. As the narrator tries to tell the Old Woman’s story, the Coyote interrupts them and tries to guess what she sees. After guessing incorrectly several times, “I” asks, “Where do you get these things?” only for the Coyote to respond “I read a book” (King 291). The narrator’s response – “Forget the bookWe’ve got a story to tell” – perfectly evinces the conflict between oral and written tradition, and King’s attempt to assert oral tradition once more in this book (291). In this way, native traditions attempt to rise up against the oppressive colonial tradition of Western/Christian myths and writing.
The nested narratives of the book also evince the winding, complex style that often comes with native oral tradition. The narrator is the conduit of the story to Coyote (which the reader overhears), as he heard it from four Aboriginal escapees from a mental institution, who also tell the Blossom citizens these same stories. The stories themselves range from the overtly mythic and over-the-top (the Biblical creation myths) to the more grounded and realistic (the four men’s escape from the institution, Eli Stands Alone’s refusal to move from his mother’s house below the Balene Dam spillway, Dr. Hovaugh’s attempts to track down the men), equating them all largely equally in the same dreamlike storytelling style. King showcases all of these various aspects of the book through his sophisticated, informal prose, which simply plays out like one is hearing a conversation or a story being told (an integral part of oral tradition).
The effect of this equalizing oral tradition is that King’s novel allows the two types of traditions to battle it out over the supremacy of storytelling forms; King seems to allow oral and written traditions to fight for the future of how stories are told.. As Johnson writes, “rather than simply satirizing media and the dual threats of assimilation and exoticism they represent for Native culture in the novel, King also explores the ambivalent effects of media and hints at their subversive potential” (Johnson 19). The result is oftentimes fractured – the constant shifting between real and mythic stories can sometimes be confusing, and the use of sentence fragments breaks up the prose to give you the barest information needed to understand the story (particularly in the escapees’ retelling of the stories of their respective Women). Still, this chaos is intentional and significant in the context of the world of the book; King intends to show us the struggle for dominance that these cultures and ideologies are constantly embroiled in.
The climax of the book reconciles the varying styles and fractured structure of the book, as reality and myth coincide with the breaking of the Balene Dam (which is precipitated by Coyote’s own participation in the Blackfoot Sun Dance). This single act allows for a revelatory assertion of native priorities in the book’s eyes, as the modernized, industrialized world is destroyed in order to make room for a more unifying, natural state by returning the river to its natural levels. This lends a mythic significance to the story’s real life events, while also offering hope to the Native Americans by giving them their nature back and taking down a symbol of white hegemony and imperialism. A more spiritual connection to the Earth is made, which is further cemented by a return to oral tradition: when Coyote asks what happened, the narrator gets to reassert his privileged status as storyteller:
“’Okay,’ says Coyote, ‘if you say so. But where did all the water come from?“’Sit down,’ I says to Coyote.‘But there is water everywhere,’ says Coyote.‘That’s true,’ I says. ‘And here’s how it happened.’” (King 153).
At the end of the book, King settles the ambivalence and chaos definitively in favor of oral tradition, having the trappings of Christian myth washed away just as cleanly as the Balene Dam, with the purer tradition of oral history remaining as the main vehicle for storytelling.
In his unique and informal prose style, which is deeply rooted in oral tradition but acknowledges the colonial invasion of Christian myth and literary culture, Jeffrey King allows not just the story, but the writing and structure of Green Grass, Running Water itself to illustrate the complex interplay between the old and the new, native and white, and traditional versus modern/technological. The nested narrative takes the form of a campfire story told by third-hand narrators, keeping in lockstep with the constantly changing and evolving nature of oral tradition. By telling different stories at different levels of reality, all interplaying between myth and tradition only to converge at the end, King allows the spirit and chaos of oral tradition to be maintained in the face of modernization, industrialization, and homogenization of cultures. In this way, the grand tradition of oral storytelling could remain alive and well even as Western culture continued to erase aboriginal culture and sense of place.
Donaldson, Laura E. "Noah Meets Old Coyote, or Singing in the Rain: Intertextuality in Thomas
King's Green Grass, Running Water." Studies in American Indian Literatures (1995): 27-43.
Johnson, Brian. "Plastic Shaman in the Global Village: Understanding Media in Thomas King’s
Green Grass, Running Water." Studies in Canadian Literature/Études en littérature canadienne 25.2 (2000).
King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Houghton Mifflin, 1993. Print.