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Green Grass, Running Water  
Paperback cover
Author Thomas King
Country Canada
Language English
Genre(s) Postmodern, trickster novel
Publisher Houghton Mifflin - hardcover March 4, 1993. Bantam Books - paperback June 1, 1994.
Publication date March 4, 1993
Media type Print (Hardcover and Paperback)
Pages 480 pp (U.S. Paperback)
ISBN 0553373684 (U.S. Paperback)
OCLC Number 29361347

Green Grass, Running Water is a 1993 novel by Native-Canadian and Greek writer Thomas King. Set in a contemporary First Nations Blackfoot community in Alberta, Canada, the novel gained attention due to its unique use of structure, narrative, and the fusion of oral and written literary traditions. The novel is rife with humor and satire, particularly regarding Judeo-Christian beliefs as well as western government and society. Green Grass, Running Water was a finalist for 1993 Governor General's Award in Fiction.


Plot summary

Green Grass, Running Water opens with an unknown narrator explaining "the beginning," in which the trickster-god Coyote is present as well as the unknown narrator. Coyote has a dream which takes form and wakes Coyote up from his sleep. The dream thinks that it is very smart; indeed the dream thinks that it is god, but Coyote is only amused, labeling the dream as Dog, who gets everything backwards. Dog asks why there is water everywhere, surrounding the unknown narrator, Coyote, and him. At this, the unknown narrator begins to explain the escape of four mythically old Native Americans from a mental institution who are named Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye. The book then divides into four main sections: each of these sections is the narration by one of the four old American Indians that explains events that have happened to ordinary denizens of the town of Blossom or the nearby reserve.

In addition to these four explaining the "ordinary" events, they also tell a creation story that accounts for why there is so much water; in each creation story, the four encounter a figure from the Bible, as well as the western literary figure from whom each derive his name.

One of the ordinary denizens is Alberta, a professor who wants to have a child, but does not want a husband or marriage. She promptly becomes involved with two other characters, Charlie and Lionel. Charlie and Lionel are quite different. Charlie is a confident lawyer, and Lionel a shy TV salesman. Lionel has a sister, Latisha, who runs the Dead Dog Café. Eli, Lionel's uncle, has ties to the academic world like Alberta, yet ultimately ends up living in a cabin to stop the government from finishing a dam that would take the river off its path--a path important to the Blackfoot traditions.

As the climax of the novel approaches, so too does the traditional Blackfoot ceremony of the Sundance. Unsure of the father of Alberta's unborn child, Charlie and Lionel have new interest in their own heritage. Alberta, too, seeks out a closer connection to her roots. Ultimately the Dam breaks due to an earthquake that the trickster-god Coyote causes, killing Eli, but also returning the waterway to its traditional course.

The novel concludes much as it began. The trickster-god Coyote and the unknown narrator are in an argument about what existed in the beginning. Coyote says nothing, but the unknown narrator says that there was water. Once again Coyote asks why there is water everywhere, and the unknown narrator says he will explain how it happened.

Principal Characters

Charlie Looking Bear - A lover of the character Alberta Frank, he is Lionel's cousin and a slick lawyer who represents the company that is building the dam that Eli opposes. Charlie was hired because the company thought a Native American lawyer might ease resentment from the populace. He used to have the same job as Lionel, a TV salesman, and in many ways represents what Lionel could become.

Alberta Frank - A professor and the lover of both Lionel and Charlie. She wants to have a child, but does not want a husband or marriage.

Eli Stands Alone - Lionel's uncle. A former professor, who opposes the building of a dam that upsets the natural course of a waterway. This natural course is important to Blackfoot tradition. Eli lives in a cabin near the dam, which would be ruined (and his life threatened) if the dam were to continue to be expanded and form a lake. Eli has filed lawsuits, and the company that Charlie represents has been stymied for 10 years.

Latisha - Lionel's sister. She is the owner of the Dead Dog Café which pretends to sell dog meat, because tourists incorrectly believe dog meat is the authentic ethnic food of the Blackfoot Native Americans. In the novel, she acts mainly as someone who offers good counsel to Lionel.

Dog, aka GOD - While Coyote was sleeping at the beginning of his novel, one of his dreams takes form and runs amok, waking Coyote up. The dream thinks it is very smart, and calls itself GOD. Coyote agrees that his dream is smart, but that it is only a facsimile of Coyote and that this dream has everything backwards; thereby he names it Dog.

Coyote - A trickster god who falls asleep and gives form to his dream, "Dog." He is on speaking terms with the four escaped American Indians, as well as the unknown narrator of the novel. He does not directly speak to the "ordinary" denizens of Blossom, although he does appear as a odd-looking dog which Lionel sees dancing.

Four escaped American Indians - The four escaped American Indians break out from a mental institution in Florida and make their way to Blossom. Each is responsible for telling a segment of the novel to the unknown narrator of the novel. They each tell a creation story as well, in which they are originally identified as First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman.[1] They encounter both a Biblical character as well as a western literary figure, and they change their names to these literary figures: First Woman to Lone Ranger, Changing Woman to Ishmael, Thought Woman to Robinson Crusoe, and Old Woman to Hawkeye.[1]

Dr. Joe Hovaugh - the doctor in charge of the mental hospital from which the four American Indians escape. King portrays him as a confused, harmless, uninterested old man who is concerned mostly with his dying garden. When pronounced phonetically, his name sounds similar to "Jehovah."

Title significance

The title, Green Grass, Running Water, is said to be in reference to the U.S. government promising Native Americans rights to their land "as long as the grass is green and the water runs."[2]

Structure and narration

The structure of the novel is quite unique; the narrator of the story is only identified as "I." This character is a companion of Coyote, and knows the four escaped American Indians personally. The unknown narrator is told the plot of the novel by each of the four in turn. This means that the reader hears the story through the unknown narrator, who heard the story from all of the four escaped American Indians, who separately tell the story to the denizens of Blossom. To further complicate the narrative structure, the unknown narrator is telling this story not directly to the reader, but primarily to Coyote.

Interspersed in the four sections of the novel are four different stories of the creation, as told by four timeless American Indian women/gods: First Woman, Changing Woman, Thought Woman, and Old Woman.[3] In each of these retellings, each woman meets both a figure from the Bible as well as a western literary figure, from whom she takes on a new name: Lone Ranger, Ishmael, Robinson Crusoe, and Hawkeye, respectively.[3]

Merging oral and written tradition

Green Grass, Running Water has been hailed as a merger between oral and written tradition as well as between Native American and European-American cultures. The story has a dualism that is present throughout, starting with Coyote and Dog. In Green Grass, Running Water, Coyote is the trickster of Native American tradition, whereas Dog thinks that he is "GOD," but is merely a dream of Coyote's.

Each of the four escaped American Indians originally starts as a mythical figure from Native American oral tradition. They then encounter Dog posing as "GOD," and a Biblical character and situation. They also each come across a western literary figure and take new names after them. First Woman becomes Lone Ranger, Changing Woman becomes Ishmael, Thought Woman becomes Robinson Crusoe, and Old Woman becomes Hawkeye. This constant merger between oral and literary traditions is indicative of Green Grass, Running Water's constant intervention in western narrative tradition.[4] By using satire and humor, King is comparing and contrasting the two traditions, highlighting faults as well as strengths.[4]


Green Grass, Running Water has been received positively, both within Native communities and without. King's book was a finalist for the 1993 Governor General's Award in Fiction. The book was championed as a novel for all Canadians by Glen Murray, former Mayor of Winnipeg, in the Canada Reads 2004 contest.


  1. ^ a b Ruppert, James. (1993). "When coyote dreams", World & I 8: 296.
  2. ^ Editor. (1993). "Thomas King's 'Green Grass, Running Water'",World & I 8: 283.
  3. ^ a b Bailey, Sharon M. (1999). "The Arbitrary Nature of the Story: Poking Fun at Oral and Written Authority in Thomas King's Green Grass, Running Water", World Literature Today 73: 43.
  4. ^ a b Cox, James H. (2000). "'All This Water Imagery Must Mean Something': Thomas King's Revisions of Narratives of Domination and Conquest in Green Grass, Running Water", American Indian Quarterly 24: 219.


  • King, Thomas (01 June 1994). Green Grass, Running Water. New York: Bantam Books.  


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