The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and Written Authority in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water

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Editor: Janet Witalec
Date: 2003
Publisher: Gale
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 8,449 words

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[(essay date winter 1999) In the following essay, Bailey analyzes how King approaches the subject of oral and written authority in Green Grass, Running Water.]

To speak of post-structuralist theory in conjunction with Native American literatures may seem as odd as serving dog stew with sauce béarnaise.--Arnold Krupat, "Post-Structuralism and Oral Literature"

In Green Grass, Running Water a narrator and the trickster Coyote preside over two loosely interwoven plots: one based on the myth of the creation of the world, and one based on the quasi-realistic events on and near a Canadian Blackfoot reservation. In the myth plot the creation story is retold four times, once each by four different Indian women: First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman. In each of the four versions the story begins with a woman falling from the sky to the world, which is yet covered with water. In each version the woman encounters a figure from the Bible and then a figure from English/Anglo-American literary culture. The latter gives the woman an appropriate Indian name, which the woman accepts rather indifferently. Finally, each woman encounters soldiers who arrest her and imprison her in Fort Marion, Florida. At some point in this last encounter, each woman drops her new Indian name and assumes the name of the Western literary figure of the previous encounter.

In the more realistic plot these same four Indians, now with the names Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, journey to Blossom and the neighboring Blackfoot reservation looking for things to "fix" (133). The action of this plot consists primarily of the various citizens of Blossom reflecting on their relationships, on their injuries inflicted by Canadian and American government bureaucracy and insensitivity, and on what they perceive to be expected of them as Indians. As the plot progresses, we see the various characters watching a John Wayne western, and the book climaxes with an earthquake, which breaks the dam and kills one of the main characters.

Just as there are two contrasting plots, there are also two contrasting portrayals of narrative technique: an oral and a written. The narrative frame, which is introduced on the very first pages and then interspersed throughout the novel, relies exclusively on dialogue to convey information. The myth plot is also related in this manner, re-creating the oral tradition of "telling" the myth. The story is even interrupted often by Coyote, who gives her opinion about the events and makes changes to the story. In contrast, representations of English/Anglo-American culture within the mythic plot rely heavily on books and acts of writing. The first people the women meet are all figures from the Bible, and of the second people the women meet, three are characters from novels. Whereas the Indian story is told "orally," the English/Anglo-American elements that are incorporated into the myth are fragments of written manifestations of Western religion and culture. Much of the humor of the novel derives from "orally" pointing out errors in the written stories. The narrator...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100048760