Sagely satirical

There’s something incredibly prescient and present about Thomas King. Unfailingly, his writing depicts the lives and experiences of his characters with care, while offering some gentle sagacity for the future relationship makers of our society. Whether it be coincidence or a subconscious desire to check in with the man who seems to speak for First Nation people on a myriad of issues, each time I have picked up a Thomas King book it speaks directly to whichever contentious issue of the day needs some wisdom and warm humour. Novels such as Medicine River and Green Grass, Running Water depict the realities of lives affected by the reserve system and difficulties faced by First Nation, Metis and Inuit people. They powerfully highlight the community spirit and traditions that continue to imbue these places with cultural significance, too. The Back of the Turtle, King’s 2014 Governor General Award-winning novel, chronicles those interrelated stories of family strife, environmentalism and resource development, politics and race. In a very intimate and familiar voice full of satire and an added element of incredulity nearing hostility, King describes the ever-changing place of Native people in a society which has fully embraced the stereotypical “Indian” in media and cultural thought, yet has little desire to engage the living individuals within the nation. If you ever find yourself considering these issues, I highly recommend you turn to The Back of the Turtle.

The story features an unusual cast of characters. Gabriel, a brilliant, half-heartedly suicidal scientist, travels to a dying town near a British Columbian Native Reserve to end his life as penance for a devastating miscalculation for which he claims responsibility. There he meets the lone resident of the reserve, a female painter determined to reclaim her childhood home and await the resurrection of her community. Meanwhile, an unscrupulous and materialistic CEO finds himself facing scandal and uncertain stock options when it is found that his head of Research and Development has gone missing. Worse, that lost scientist’s home contains damning evidence and secret research on many environmental disasters, mostly caused through the negligence of this company. Along with these characters there is a nudist, a semi-omniscient dog, and a handful of individuals dragged from the ocean. A more disjointed group of people you have not met before, but that is just the point King is trying to make. In the end, the characters, and we readers by extension, come to realize that despite their differences of heritage, country of origin, or material possessions, everyone is affected by the same circumstances and must join into a loving community in order to meet the oncoming challenges.

King has masterfully woven a tale that somehow bridges incredibly intimate and character-driven storytelling with social commentary on issues ranging from race relations and stereotypes to global ecology. Christians reading this novel may be intrigued or intimidated by the prominence of Native mythology and concerns within The Back of the Turtle. The title itself is lifted from a particular creation myth recalling how the earth, and therefore all life, is precariously positioned on the shell of a turtle and could, one supposes, be submerged and drowned at any moment. No nihilist, King never pursues this exact train of thought. Instead, as the truth of the disaster dubbed “The Ruin” is brought to light, two other themes emerge: stewardship and community. If your Christian worldview has developed along the same lines as my own then these words have special significance to you. The titular myth features a woman who falls from the sky, but we also have a creation story that features some people falling. Before Adam & Eve fall into sin they are given the mandate to care for creation and for each other; along with God in Eden, they become the first community. 

We need these stories to remind us of what we know in our hearts, that we have been blessed with this creation and by ignoring the damage done to it in the name of progress we allow the water to inch a little higher up the shell. With The Back of the Turtle, King has again spoken for a people voicing their concerns on the issues that face us today. Like the Law expert in the New Testament who asks, “Who is my neighbour?”, Thomas King reminds us that we are all together on the back of the turtle.

  • Tom Smith is a teacher living in Barrie, Ont. with his wife Sarah and son Jakeb.

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