Yukon Books - Whitehorse, Yukon
Yukonbooks.com > Bookends: Dan Davidson

  Bookends: Dan Davidson

The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative

Reviewed: October 4, 2006
By: Thomas King
Publisher: House of Anansi Press
172 pages, $18.95

In one of the stories about creation, the world is described as floating in space on the back of a turtle. The story is told in slightly different ways depending on who is telling it and who the audience might be. There may be changes in the order of events and in the details. What stays the same is the turtle. It is always there and it never swims away.

Sometimes when people hear the story they ask what is underneath the turtle. The storyteller will say that it’s another turtle ... and another ... and another. In fact no one knows how deep this goes but, as Tom King writes in the introductory paragraphs of each of the lectures in this book, “it’s turtles all the way down.”

The other thing that King writes is a truth that it is so important to remember during this period of political contests and party slogans.

“The truth about stories is that that’s all we are.”

King’s particular target in during his 2003 Massey Lectures was the stories that have been told about first nations people and the stories they have told themselves about themselves, but the statement has the force of an epigram, and if it hasn’t already made its way into someone’s book of wise sayings, then it should.

In the first of the five lectures King compares the story of the Turtle with the story of Adam and Eve, and Genesis comes out second best for reasons which will be clear when you read it. His point is that the stories around which we base our actions and philosophies are our entry points to reality, and much of what we do with our lives has to do with where we start. I may not buy his theology, but I accept that.

Most of the remaining lectures are about different kinds of Indians. King grew up in California and uses the word freely in his writing, so I’m not going to be overly politically correct in this essay. “You’re not the Indian I had in Mind” deals in part with his travels as a young man, but also with the images of the Native - the Noble Savage, the Literary Indian, the Hollywood Indian, the Dying Indian - which have coloured much of the thinking about Indians by those of European descent since the two races encountered each other.

Real Natives bear scant resemblance to any of those stereotypes, he writes, and yet the myths persist.

“Let me entertain you” recounts King’s career as a professional Indian, decked out in all the trappings that were expected of a person rediscovering his roots, when he was a young man, how he realized that he was in danger of becoming nothing more than window dressing, bunting on the great stage of liberal guilt, and how he got away from all that.

“A Million Porcupines Crying in the dark” examine the Indian race as it has been portrayed in much classic literature through the years. He disposes of a number of stereotypes along the way and then muses on the fact that contemporary native writers “have shown little interest in using the past as a setting, preferring instead to place their fictions in the present.”

That might not be entirely true. The stories he describes are set in the modern era, right enough, but they often deal with people who are trying to come to terms with who they are in the context of both their past and their present, with results that are often tragic in true to life ways.

“What is it about us that you don’t like” examines just exactly that question, with the lens focussed on the kinds of legislation that have been developed over the years in the USA and Canada to “deal with the Indian problem”. This is brilliantly illustrated by one of the Coyote stories that King loves to tell and has, in fact, made into a children’s book that I have reviewed here. Comparing the story to history reveals that the main impact of the legislation, some of it with the cooperation of the native people themselves, has been to slowly define them out of existence.

The last essay in the book is an extra, not part of the lecture series and one that King says he will never deliver orally. It’s about fetal alcohol syndrome and its effect on a family of his acquaintance. It’s a sad story, and while it has food for thought in it, the meat is bitter.

Stories, King says, can make a difference in our lives. He concludes each essay with an admonition that we use his stories to do this, that there is no longer an excuse because he has given them to us for just this purpose.

“Don’t say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story.

“You’ve heard it now.”

Print Preview


[Special Order Desk]
Great Deals
New Arrivals
Special Offers
Recover password
Contact us
Privacy statement
Terms & Conditions
Shipping Information
Special Orders Desk

Copyright © 2007 Yukonbooks.com