"Guess we need a story," he says. He looks at me. "So we can understand this place."
Charles de Lint
Thomas King’s green grass, running water is an interrogation into what is real and what is magical. The story, which situates the real along side with the magic, falls into the category of magic realism: events that seem impossible appear logical in context. King poetically weaves the traditional world of oral Indigenous story telling with the individualised western written text. The two narratives form apparently different structural patterns, which distinguish the different writing styles in the story. While the two interwoven texts appear to contrast and contradict each other, the mythical text forms a frame upon which the real text sits. The mythic or magic text sets the real text up, joining the two texts in a cohesive narrative.
The paralleled structure of the two texts in "green grass, running water" is so apparent due to concrete structural differences of the narrative. The two dominant structures in the text are the linear, real-time story, and the cyclic, mythological teachings. The linear structure of the real-time story is the form more to the modern western reader. The story structure follows conventional western writing styles. Richard Green Parker, in his instructional writing guide says:
As composition is strictly a mental effort, its foundation must be laid in a disciplined and cultivated mind, in the exercise of vigorous thought, on reading and observation, and an attentive study of the meaning and force of language. The proper preparation for its successful performance should be laid in a diligent attention to the rules of grammar, a thorough knowledge of the principles of rhetoric, and a successful application of the maxims of logic; for logic must direct us in the selection of ideas, rhetoric must clothe them in a suitable dress, and grammar must adapt to dress to particular for of the idea. (5)
There is, according to Parker, a right and wrong way to write, the right way being grammatically and ideologically correct. While Parker is addressing a nineteenth century audience and culture, his ideas apply as he speaks to the tradition of western writing. King, an English professor at the University of Guelph, is well aware of literary conventions and standards. green grass, running water is written with beautiful, formally structured sections. King makes two of his characters, Alberta and Eli, university professors. These signal the loaded western text of the novel.
Western literature is "the language of reason…It is characterised by fullness and precision" (Parker 88). The real-time, western aspects of the novel rely on logical reason to function. The text and the characters behave according to reason and precision, they must function according to the laws science, and by traditions of western prose rules. The grammar is precise and correct; the real text is sceptical of any unexplained actions or events. After the old Indians change the events of the John Wayne western, Bursum must justify and rationalise the situation. "Damn," he says, "you put your faith in good equipment and look what happens" (King 322) In this linear western tradition, Bursum cannot cope with the magical; the structure of the text leaves them no room for miracles.
The real text of green grass, running water contains many flashbacks explaining certain character’s pasts. The stories of First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman move in an undefined time and space. When Changing Woman meets Moby Jane, they "swim around like that for a month. Maybe it is three weeks. Maybe not" (225). Time is unnecessary and unstated; as the text repeats itself, the exact time in not relevant; the events are universal and eternal. The real-time text must be defined, not uncertain. The history flashbacks are precise in their temporal locations. When beginning a memory for the real characters, King defines the time. He writes, "When Alberta was thirteen, the family went across the line to Browning" (256). The real-time histories fit into the real-time narrative as precise events, relying on the character’s authority to be proven correct. The events are not questioned by the reader, but taken as fact.
The cyclical structure of the text, the magical or mythical, defies western notions of literature, and evolves from an oral tradition, keeping many oral conventions. The cyclical text is repetitive in retellings, and in phrases and words. When First Woman falls from the sky world, ‘those Ducks put First Woman on grandmother Turtle’s back. Ho, says grandmother Turtle when she sees that woman on her back. You are on my back" (King 39). That First Woman is on grandmother Turtle’s back is stated three times. To western audiences this reiteration appears redundant; in an oral telling this technique emphasises the point, clarifying and distinguishing it as important.
The magic text is directed at one-person listener, Coyote, with the reader acting as voyeur. These stories are told as conversation, and appear more interactive due to Coyote’s interruptions and questions. In the western canon stories told to audiences, are uninterrupted, the audience is an excuse to begin the story. In Sir Thomas More’s "Utopia" the narrator begins his description of Utopia as an example of political idealism. "When he saw that we were eager to hear him," says the narrator, "he sat silently and thoughtful for a moment, and then began as follows…" (30). The fictitious audience sits passively, fading from the reader’s thoughts, the textual being the only concentration. With Coyote’s constant interjections the reader of green grass, running water can never forget that they are not isolated. King expands the audience from a solitary reader to that reader and Coyote. Furthermore, he reminds the reader that there are other readers. This expanded audience recalls the oral tale.
King uses a different grammatical style with the cyclical magic passages. While spelling remains correct, grammar rules and syntax questioned. There are no quotation marks to distinguish dialogue between the Women and characters they meet, and while the narrator and Coyote converse in conventional dialogue with quotation marks, they are the interruptions into the myth. The language in these sections appears stilted: "And she is right. There is the canyon. And there are those dead rangers" (King 70). King uses many short sentences giving the text a choppy feeling. "Sentences in general," says Parker, "should neither be very long, nor very short…Short ones are apt to break the sense, and weaken the convexion of thought" (110). King deliberately uses these short sentences to gain an oral quality, a lilt in the story, and to emphasise ideas.
The magic text is cyclical. The four parts tell the same story, but from different perspectives. The four old women are the same woman shown from different perspectives: they all begin in the sky world and end up at Fort Marion. All the stores are told to teach and to teach the reader that there is more to the story than first appears. Coyote expresses the unconscious thoughts of the reader. After the third section Coyote says, "But I’ve got it straight now…But just to make sure, could we go through it one more time?" (324). Coyote and the reader need to hear the story over, and over again.
While the two narrative structures appear to be radically different and diverse, they are the same text, they structurally parallel each other. The magical, cyclical text sets a framework for the real, linear text. The magic text places the real text around itself, and rather than clash with each other, they form the same story. The real text is only another version of the Women stories. The parallels between the two structures start slowly, building to a more obvious parallel by the end of the novel.
The story of First Woman is the introduction to the magical text, as the first section is an introduction to the main characters in green grass, running water. After First Woman creates her garden GOD arrives:
Wait a minute, says that GOD. That’s my garden. That’s my stuff…Oh, oh, says First Woman. When she sees that GOD land in her garden. Just when we were getting things organized." (41)
Headed towards the idyllic, First Woman’s is disrupted by the western patriarch. It is not Ahdamn who throws her world into chaos, it is GOD. It is the idea of Christianity and the baggage that comes with it that sets the garden amuck. For Alberta it is the men in her life who cause the disturbances:
When Charlie began talking commitment, Alberta phoned Lionel. When Lionel started hinting about spending more time together, Alberta would fly to Edmonton for two or three weekends in a row. Men wanted to be married. More than sex, Alberta was convinced, men wanted marriage. So far, she had been able to maintain the balance. The distance helped.
But there were complications. Complications that called for decisions, decisions Alberta did not want to make. (45)
It is the men in Alberta’s life, caught up in the ideals of western patriarchy, who believe they must marry to fulfil their masculine duties, who throw her life out of sorts. Like First Woman, it is the ideas of the patriarch that through her life into disorder.
The real story begins to change slightly, to complicate when Changing Woman enters. The parallels between the real and mythical become stronger. When Changing Woman meets Moby-Jane, Moby-Jane:
swims over to the ship and punches a large hole in its bottom.
There, says Moby-Jane. That should take care of that.
That was very clever of you, says Changing Woman as she watches the ship sink. What happens to Ahab?
We do this every year, says Moby-Jane. He’ll be back. He always comes back. (197)
Not only has the story of Moby-Dick been altered, but Moby-Jane and Changing Woman’s conversation speaks to the cyclic nature of the story, to the natures of stories. Events happen, and then happen again. Stories are essentially the in western literature. As every student is taught, stories build to a climax and then resolve; if every story has the same basic structure then they are the same story. Eli recognises this aspect in the western novel:
Eli opened the book and closed his eyes. He didn’t have to read the pages to know what was going to happen. Iron Eyes and Annabelle would fall madly in love. There would be a conflict of some sort between the whites and the Indians. And Iron Eyes would be forced to choose his people, because it was always the noble thing to do and because Western writers seldom let Indians sleep with whites. Iron Eyes would send Annabelle back to the fort then go to fight the soldiers. He’d be killed, of course, and the novel would conclude on a happy note of some sort. Perhaps Annabelle would find that her fiancé had not been killed after all or she would fall into the arms of a handsome army lieutenant…
Eli opened one of his eyes. Then again, this one might be different…
Eli should have kept his eyes closed. (199-200)
Eli confirms the generic aspects of stories, that within a genre the story is essentially the same. This cyclic retelling of genre is much like the cyclic structure and retelling aspects of the oral story, much like the mythic text of the novel.
The second section also begins to show a direct parallel of actions. When Changing Woman meets Noah he tries to convince her that there are "Christian rules" (145-8). The following page, back in real-time, Charlie rents a car, where he is told to "Initial here that you’ve read the rules" (149). These events, especially given their proximity, seem like obvious play. The real-time directly mimics the events that play out in the magic. The texts are slowly drawing together.
Once the third section begins, events from the real and magical worlds begin to fall closer together. At the beginning of the section Thought Woman travels blindly down the river (232). Thought Woman ends up falling into the ocean, but her progress there is not direct or conscious, nor does she have a destination. This destination-less-ness is much like Eli’s life. "Looking back," writes King, "Eli could see that he had never made a conscious decision to stay. And looking back, he knew it was the only decision he could have made" (263). Eli, seen by many of the Native elders as a role model for the younger generations, has fallen into the role blindly; he never intended to become an activist, nor did he intend to return to the reserve. His journey was accidental, but necessary, like Thought Woman’s.
By the end of the third section the stage is set for the magic narrative to lead the text. Coyote states early in the section that "This is the same story" (329). This fourth telling, this fourth section is the Woman story over again, but it also implies that the real story is the same story as the four mythological texts. The chapter begins with cyclic imagery in the real narrative. Burnum is shown "Just like before…he pushed the Rewind again" (330), Latisha remarks that "Each year her parents went to the Sun Dance" (335), and Eli tells Lionel "I was a lot like you when I was your age" (342). These cyclical images in such close proximity to each other recall Coyote’s words, but also the overall structure of the magic text. The magic text has been told multiple times now, and suddenly the real text begins to show not a linear path from beginning to end with a single climax and resolution, but a new beginning, the same beginning, from each end.
The events of the fourth section are also the most directly linked. Old Woman meets "Young Man Walking On Water" (349-52), an incomprehensible to a modern audience as anything other than metaphor and fiction. As the man is walking on water in the magical narrative, the real text suddenly has an import of magic and mythic that none of the characters can dispute, "three cars floating on the lake" (406). The cars on the lake are just as improbable as a man walking on water, but the characters in the novel cannot ignore them. All the characters see them, yet none of them try to dispute it. It is at this point that the previously separate texts of real and magical form one.
green grass, running water combines the world of the magic and real, the cyclic and linear, the oral and the written. Although it often appears that the two texts are separate and conflicting, they are helping each other gain credibility. By forming a framework, the magic cradles the real story. After completing Thomas King’s green grass, running water the real story reveals itself in its true form, not a real-time, logical text, but a fifth variation on the Woman stories, another variation of the mythic.
--From Richard Green Parker's Aids to English Composition, Prepared for Students of all Grades, 1845. Available here as well.