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January 10, 2011

Canada Reads Indies 1: Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

The basic narrative of Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water was more straightforward than I’d been expecting– Truth and Bright Water are, respectively, an American town and a Canadian Indian reservation, side-by-side at the bottom of Alberta. The story takes place in the summer days leading up to the “Indian Days” celebration in Bright Water (which attracts German and Japanese Indian-enthusiasts in particular), from the perspective of a young boy called Tecumseh. His closest companions are his cousin Lum, and his boxer-dog Soldier, the three of them roaming the area with its peculiar topography as familiar as the blue sky that surges from the mountains– mountain and prairie alike, the coulee, naturally occurring stone pillars rising from the river, the incomplete bridge between the two communities, the old church high on the hill about Truth.

One night out on the coulee, Lum and Tecumseh witness a strange woman throwing something in the river, and she appears to throw herself in after it. Closer investigation by the boys turns up a clean white human skull where they’d seen her jump in, but there is no sign of the woman, or the truck she arrived in either. The scene is troubling to both boys in different ways– a recent tragedy has claimed Lum’s mother, and he begins to conflate what happened to her and the woman they saw. Tecumseh is aware that something is not right with Lum, and disturbed by the skull also, but he is unable to articulate his concerns, and his parents are too consumed by their own affairs to notice that anything is wrong.

His parents’ affairs could possibly have something to do with the return of Monroe Swimmer (Famous Indian Artist) to Bright Water. Monroe, who has purchased the church on the hill but has shown himself to no one, has some kind of connection to Tecumseh’s mother. Tecumseh’s parents are separated, and his father continually embarks upon schemes to win back his wife which are about as sensible as his business ventures. Tecumseh’s looking for business ventures of his own, and ends up with a job with the elusive Monroe, who has begun painting the old church to blend in with the landscape.

Of course, the story is not entirely straightforward– there is a ghost, for example, though Tecumseh is not aware that she’s a ghost. In fact, Tecumseh is not aware of many things, which requires the reader to question on any straightforwardness the novel might suggest. But on a straightforward level, the novel still works, unlike, say, King’s Green Grass Running Water, which really requires a decoder ring to be properly understood. It’s only half the story, of course, but it’s still worth noting that this is a proper tale of a boy and his dog.

The novel is straightforward, however, the same way that Tecumseh’s mother’s quilt is straightforward. Woven into its fabric are hooks, feathers and other unusual objects. The shapes of the quilt tell its stories, but the stories aren’t quite what they seem. Tecumseh struggles to decipher the quilt as he does the whole world around him– none of his questions are ever answered; his parents keep disappearing; the bruises on Lum’s body are clearly inflicted by his father, but nobody does anything about them; and what about the woman having her hair cut in his mother’s salon who is convinced that Marilyn Monroe was an Indian?

The whole book could be explained away by allegory, and when I read it in graduate school, that is probably what I did. The symbiotic relationship of Truth and Bright Water showing that recent political borders are arbitrary, and that even Indian/non-Indian comes with a similar lack of distinctions– the Indians play up their stereotypical culture for the tourists, but their “Indianness” is far from King’s sole preoccupation with these characters. Or does glossing over such distinctions make matters worse? Famous Indian Artist Monroe Swimmer is painting out the church from the prairie landscape, obliterating the past (after years of working in museums and painting Indians back into the picture in the landscapes he “restored”): “Seeing that it has gone is one thing. Finding it now that it has disappeared is something else.” After all, that history can be so swept away is really just an illusion. Really, nothing is straightforward at all, and such subtle complexity is the novel’s great strength.

Truth and Bright Water is not without its weaknesses, however. Tecumseh’s limited point of view leaves too many gaps to make the novel as satisfying as I would have liked it to be, or perhaps the trouble is too many plots to be brought together effectively. Though the gaps have their purpose, and the too many plots is analogous to crazy shape of Tecumseh’s mother’s quilt, and that’s how life is. The subtlety of the novel also works against it– one could finish it and think they’d read a middling story about a boy and his dog. Though I enjoyed the story and found the ending particularly sad, its overall effect upon me was a bit underwhelming.

I’m glad I read it though, sort of a cheat of a reread, as I barely remember reading it in the first place. Truth and Bright Water requires attention and close reading that I didn’t apply to it before, so I’m grateful for the opportunity this time around. A very good book that gives the rest of the line-up quite a lot to live up to.

Canada Reads Independently Rankings:

1) Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King

5 thoughts on “Canada Reads Indies 1: Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King”

  1. Gillian says:

    I wonder if anyone else would consider this a distinctly western type of narrative – personally, I love the gaps and the leaps in the story, the double telling, the familiar feeling that King’s books give you of your needing to rush to keep up with this telling because it might be different next time. It makes me think of Sheila Watson’s ‘the Double Hook’ and Kroetsch’s ‘Badlands’ and ‘the Studhorse Man’. The landscape out here is jumbled and doubled and hard to see past and for me, this type of narrative, the type that demands an attention that forgives multiple tellings of the same event differently or assumes you got that bit the last time or intuited it, is natural and honest and pleasantly demanding. Truth and Bright Water gutted me and has done each time I’ve read it. I trust Thomas King as a storyteller in a way I don’t trust many others because he will ask that I am patient with the telling as the story is bound to stay with me far longer than the story in a conventional less ‘western’ novel.

    1. Kerry says:

      Gillian, I love this: “the familiar feeling that King’s books give you of your needing to rush to keep up with this telling because it might be different next time”. Though rushing is also a bit of a trap, isn’t it? I found myself reading this book far more carefully than I do most. I also wonder if this book would resonate with me more if I had an image of the landscape– I kept trying to put all King’s descriptions together, but failed to come with anything more than the pieces. I need to know my west better.

  2. Gillian says:

    come on over! I’ll make tea.

  3. I felt like this was more straightforward than I’d been expecting as well. But now that I think about it, maybe slanty-forward would be more accurate. It wasn’t exactly linear either, was it…even if, in comparison to GGRW it seems so. I’m glad to have had a reason to make reading time for this one, and I definitely want to fill in the gaps in my Thomas King reading.

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