Canada Reads Indie: Thomas King

Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water
Harper-Flamingo, 1999

Truth is the railroad town on one side of the river, in the United States; Bright Water is the reserve on the other side of the river, in Canada.

Once there had been a plan to build a bridge, but something went awry. What remains is barely recognizable, and even if the components had once been solid, they, too, are now ruined.

Thomas King does not shy away from talk of devastation and loss, fractured promises and decay. In Truth and Bright Water, hearts are broken and people disappear.

A reader might even say that the narrative is framed by tragedies. But a reader would also have to say that the tragedies do not stand alone.

In the hands of another writer, this might have an air of a conscious balancing act. But in Thomas King’s narrative, it feels as though there is something larger that acts as a counterweight, not a specific narrative device, but an overarching sense of grace.

Even on the first page, there is a hint of this in the description of the bridge and the landscape that surrounds its remnants. “But if you walk down into the coulees and stand in the shadows of the deserted columns and the concrete arches, you can look up through the open planking and the rusting webs of iron mesh, and see the sky.”

It’s rough: shadows, deserted, rusting webs. But there is the sky.

And on the second page: “By then, the roof was missing most of its shingles, and the clapboard siding was cupped and pitted. The north side had been completely stripped by the cold and the wind, leaving an open wound of wood that had scabbed over grey and brittle. To the west and the south, the paint that was left had blistered and split and curled up in twists like pigs’ tails.”

It’s nasty: pitted, stripped, open wound, scabbed, blistered, split. But it’s curled up in twists like pigs’ tails. It’s dynamic, it’s alive.

Perhaps, in only a sentence or two, this cannot be adequately experienced. But the cumulative effect of reading this narrative voice takes hold of the reader in a unique way.  Thomas King is, unquestionably, a story teller. By the end of the first chapter, I wasn’t too keen on Tecumseh or Lum or the Dog Soldier. But there was no question about whether I would keep reading. I was caught.

“Yeah,” says my father, “but my boy hasn’t heard me tell it yet, have you?” So my father tells the story, and even though he’s added a few things here and there, I still  recognize it, and it sounds a lot funnier now than when it happened.”

Yup, Thomas King, like Tecumseh’s father, knows how to tell a story. And there are very funny bits. Some of them get funnier, still, after they’ve happened. When they’re referred to, later in the narrative.

Out of the context of the story, I wouldn’t find them funny. But Thomas King has convinced me, thoroughly, that they are funny, from the perspective of those who are actually experiencing them. The only thing that matters is what seems overwhelmingly real, which is the world on the pages of Truth and Bright Water.

When I try to enumerate the ways by which this book has won my heart, I hesitate. There are some specifics that have pulled me in. The relationship between Tecumseh and his mother is remarkably well-drawn and his friendship with Lum is credible and memorable. And I absolutely love the way that he talks to Soldier.

(I’ve never known anybody who has this kind of relationship with a dog, but now I’m certain that’s exactly how it would be. As though it couldn’t be any other way. Not with Tecumseh and Soldier. Perhaps not any other way with anyone else. Somehow it captures something intensely specific and personal, and something wide-reaching and universal at the same time.)

But the way in which it has most thoroughly engaged me is not about specific elements. It’s that feeling that I’ve had some trouble describing. That sense of something larger.

That sense of being pulled into it through the simple act of reading. My reader’s existence nearly unrecognizable through the lines of text, as though the author has pulled me into the ink and paper, tugged me in there amongst the lines of text, added a layer of shellac to keep me there.

I had the same feeling when I read Green Grass, Running Water. And I don’t think I explained it clearly then either. Maybe this is when I should just shrug my reader’s shoulders and call it magic?

My Canada Reads Indie Responses (please see Pickle Me This for the event’s details):
Lynn Coady’s Play the Monster Blind (JAN28 above) (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Stacey May Fowles’ Be Good JAN30 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Mavis Gallant’s Home Truths FEB1 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Thomas King’s Truth and Bright Water FEB3 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)
Darren Greer’s Still Life with June FEB5 (Pickle Me This pitch is here)

Share
2014-03-10T20:32:28+00:00

4 Comments

  1. […] didn’t get in the way of my pulling it off the shelf. Just try it: it’s terrific! (Truth and Bright Water is great too and The Inconvenient Indian is page-turning […]

  2. Buried In Print February 12, 2011 at 9:39 pm - Reply

    Thanks, Gavin: I’m glad that I’m not the only one struggling for the right words there. And oh, my, that painting is something else. So many ways to interpret that!

    Agreed that he is charming in person, Carolyn. I heard him read from his short story collection a few years back and it was as though the walls of the theatre snugged in as he spoke: a warm and nourishing feeling. Though I imagine that a speech would be even more amazing to hear: how lucky you could attend that!

  3. Carolyn February 6, 2011 at 11:32 pm - Reply

    Thomas King spoke at my university in Lethbridge a few years ago and he was wonderful, so engaging and funny and warm. I’ve never read one of his books, but have always meant to, as he’s as good a storyteller in person as you say he is on the page!

  4. gavin February 6, 2011 at 5:45 pm - Reply

    I think it is magic..and grace. There is just a special buoyancy to King’s writing that is hard to describe. I can still see that church disappearing as Monroe painted it away.

Say something bookish, or just say 'hey'