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December 15, 2010

Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water

Thomas King’s novel Truth and Bright Water received a lukewarm (and more luke than warm) review in The New York Times in 2000, but then again the review also called it “a coming-of-age novel set in Montana”, so what do they know?

The Times’ review faults Truth for being “so labored and multilayered that it ends up doing a disservice to his characters: in such a relatively brief book, all those criss-crossing threads and half-communicated secrets do more to obscure than to illuminate the very people we’re supposed to care about.” However, somewhat convolutedly, another reviewer writes, “For all the crosscurrents of humor, heroism, tragedy, and evil, [the book] flows with the ingenuity of the human heart applied to the complexities of everyday life. This is the most impressive story the author tells as well as exemplifies: the artistry of the ordinary” but we get the gist of what they mean– perhaps Truth and Bright Water is a book that polarizes.

It’s difficult to find much on the web about this book, unless you’re looking for an academic essay to plagiarize. Which actually makes this a most fitting pick for Canada Reads Independently– how will this book fare outside of an academic context? (Champion Nathalie has pointed out that the academic quality of King’s writing is the reason that his Green Grass, Running Water was knocked out of Canada Reads in 20o4). The book has a pretty impressive entry over at Wikipedia, with a substantial plot summary and list of characters. I’ve not examined it too closely because I seem to remember this book having some kind of twist at the end, and I want to re-encounter it by surprise.

But I will quote the plot introduction, to acquaint us with the text: “Truth, a small town in rural Montana, and Bright Water, a reserve across the Canadian-American border, are separated by a river. The first person narrator, a 15-year-old Native American (Blackfoot) youth, Tecumseh (named after the famous Shawnee leader), watches a strange woman jump off the cliff into the river that marks the border. His companions are Lum, his cousin, and Soldier, his boxer dog. The plot revolves around their interactions with each other, with their parents, and other people in Truth and Bright Water, which lead up to the great event, the Indian Days festival, and the (partial) resolution of the mystery around the strange woman.”

Nathalie Foy describes this book as “a delight.  Each time I read it, I am newly charmed.  It is brimful of offerings: part mystery and part coming of age, the story is peppered with red herrings and liberally seasoned with magic realism and social critique.  There is tension throughout, and tragedy, but both are leavened by King’s inimitable comedic style.  King has dialogue–and the non-sequitur in particular–down to a fine art, and one of the great joys of reading the book is how the characters come alive in their snappy exchanges.” She notes that it’s a more accessible work that Green Grass Running Water, but that “it still makes us work and think.  To my way of thinking, the very best books do.”

This is the one book of the bunch that I’ve read already, for a fantastic course I took in grad school on haunting in Canadian fiction. I remember not spending much time on the book, however, at the time having exhausted my Thomas King appetite after marking 80 undergrad papers on Green Grass Running Water.  And I think it was dealt with in class near the end of the semester, and we didn’t spend much time on it, so in a sense, I’ve hardly read the book at all. Though I’ll admit it’s the book of them all I’m most intimidated by, but I’m going back into it with my bookish mind wide open.

5 thoughts on “Canada Reads Independently Spotlight: Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water”

  1. alexis says:

    I love Thomas King.

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