Mapping and Dreaming: Resisting Apocalypse in Green Grass, Running Water

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Author: Marlene Goldman
Editor: Thomas J. Schoenberg
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 12,318 words

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[(essay date 2005) In the following essay, Goldman contends that in his novel Green Grass, Running Water Tom King uses gallows humor to depict the apocalyptic clash between North American settlers and Native North American people and their traditions and rituals, which both resist and function as an alternative to apocalyptic eschatology.]

Contemporary Canadian writers take great pains to emphasize the trauma and devastation instigated by apocalyptic thinking and to demonstrate the necessity of challenging the apocalyptic paradigm, the visionary tool Western culture overtly and covertly uses to establish meaning. Whereas Findley's Headhunter and Ondaatje's The English Patient champion prophetic eschatology as an alternative to apocalypse, Atwood's "Hairball" offers no such alternative and, as a result, highlights the disaster that ensues when apocalyptic violence goes unchallenged. Owing to the emphasis on the figure of the Wendigo, Atwood's story alludes to the fact that apocalyptic violence was used to pave the way for Canada's creation as a nation-state, a process that involved the genocide of Native North Americans and the appropriation of their land. Whereas the connection between apocalyptic violence and the formation of the nation-state remains latent in Atwood's "Hairball," it is a central and explicit theme in Tom King's Green Grass, Running Water.

In effect, all of the works in this study highlight the trauma and loss experienced by those deemed the non-elect. Whereas Headhunter, The English Patient, and Kogawa's Obasan approach these subjects with gravity, "Hairball" briefly demonstrates the possibility of relying on gallows humour to cope with apocalypse's horrific brutality. In Green Grass, Running Water, King adopts an entirely comic approach to examine the traumatic impact of apocalyptic eschatology on Native North Americans. Both Atwood's and, to a much greater extent, King's comic approaches raise a fundamental question, namely, why do some writers, particularly North American Native writers, combine the brutal aspect of apocalypse with "the hilarious, the traumatic with the absurd" (Fagan 103). Referring to the bitter humour that pervades contemporary Native writing, Native author Paula Gunn Allen points out that Native humour was transformed by the devastation of European contact: "It's almost gallows humour ... [W]hen you've gone through five hundred years of genocidal experiences, when you know that the other world that surrounds you wants your death and that's all it wants, you get bitter. And you don't get over it. It starts getting passed on almost genetically. It makes for wit, for incredible wit, but under the wit there is a bite" (interview 21-2). In addition to recognizing the link between humour and survival, Kristina Fagan argues that what she terms "trauma humour" is frequently used by Native writers due to the prohibition against bearing witness in most Native cultures. As she explains, the accepted Western process of bearing witness violates three traditional ethics of Northern Native peoples: first, the ethic of non-interference--essentially, the belief that it is wrong to confront people, to give advice, or to interfere or comment on people's behaviour if this information has not been requested; second, the...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420083875