Tag Archives: Thomas King

Eli, Hebrew Prophets, and the Old Testament

“Eli Stand Alone stood at the window of the cabin and watched the water slide past the porch.  It was getting higher, but they had done that before, open the gates just a little and let the stream come up over the sides of the channel and wash against the logs.  A lot of trouble for nothing.” (King, 110)

Eli’s name is highly charged with biblical significance.  Not only does the word “Eli” mean “My God” in Hebrew, it is also a reference to the Old Testament prophets (Smith, 76).  There are several significant figures named Eli or a derivative of the name in the Hebrew bible; the names Elijah and Elisha are both written in their abbreviated form as “Eli” in the text.  Like these prophets, King’s Eli is a wise man, trained both academically and with deep spiritual connections.  Not only was he a university professor, but he also demonstrates his connection to the land and his people by refusing to move from his home and allow the dam to flood the area.  His experiences also prefigure the other later narratives in much the same way that the Old Testament prefigures the New Testament (Smith, 76).  For example, his experience at the Sun Dance as a child, in which a man appears to be taking pictures of the event, foreshadows the incident at the end of the book in which George Morningstar does much the same thing.  He also makes prophetic statements about what will happen with the dam: while Sifton finds that the dam looks “Sort of white.  Like a shell,” Eli replies “Reminds me of a toilet” (King, 136).  Throughout the book, the toilet at The Dead Dog Cafe is constantly overflowing, and in the end, the dam follows suit, bursting and destroying Eli and his cabin in the process.

The name of Eli also appears to be a direct intertextual reference to the character that appears in Louise Erdrich‘s works, Love Medicine and Tracks.  King’s reference to “other Native American texts typifies a range of references that move readers into other imaginative Native American landscapes” (Smith, 76).  It is interesting that this may be the case, since King’s novel is accessible to readers with a western world view; it may be that it acts as somewhat of a stepping stone into indigenous literature.


Dr. Joseph Hovaugh and Jehovah

“Dr. Joseph Hovaugh sat at his desk and rolled his toes in the soft, deep-pile carpet.  The desk was large, one of his wife’s auction discoveries, a rare example of colonial woodcraft.  She had had it stripped, repaired, stained blond, and moved into his office as a surprise.  He was delighted, he said, and praised her eye for having found so massive a piece of wood.  It reminded him of a tree cut down to the stump.” (King, 16)

jehovahThe passage above is the reader’s first introduction to Dr. Hovaugh, whose name is an allusion to the one of the common pronunciations of the name of the Christian god, Jehovah.  Even in this first passage, King makes a subtle reference that places him in the Christian mythological framework; the desk at which Dr. Hovaugh is seated was “stripped, repaired, [and] stained blond,” which brings to mind the Passion and Ascension of Christ, who was stripped and flagellated before Pilate, crucified, and taken bodily into Heaven (where he is usually depicted in Western art as glowing and fair-haired).  Dr. Hovaugh in fact has an ongoing relationship with tree and wood symbolism throughout the novel; he later feels “burdened with inexplicable remorse and guilt” as the established trees in his garden fall victim to a blight and have to be replaced with young saplings (King, 73).

Dr. Hovaugh is again associated with Biblical tradition a bit further down the page:

“Dr. Hovaugh sat in his chair behind his desk and looked out at the wall and the trees and the flowers and the swans on the blue-green pond in the garden, and he was pleased.” (King, 16)

This passage sounds very much like the verses in the first book of Genesis, which read:

So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.   And God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”  And God said, “Behold, I have given you every plant yielding seed which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit; you shall have them for food.  And to every beast of the earth, and to every bird of the air, and to everything that creeps on the earth, everything that has the breath of life, I have given every green plant for food.” And it was so.  And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. (Genesis 1:27-31).

Having cemented this biblical allusion, King takes the character of Dr. Hovaugh in an interesting direction.  Rather than presenting him as a wise, powerful figure, he presents him as a vaguely confused and rather clueless old man.  He seems disconnected from the world around him, unable to interact properly the people around him.  For example, while discussing the missing Old Indians, “Dr. Eliot was talking, saying something about the Indians, but Dr. Hovaugh couldn’t quite hear him” (King, 48).  This is reflected externally by the death of his garden; there is another reference to its decay on page 96: “The grass near the wall seemed unusually dry and the leaves on one of the new elms appeared yellow and curled.  The big oak wasn’t showing any signs of improvement, either.”  There is a sense that Dr. Hovaugh is a man whose best years are past, who is ready to fade away into obscurity.  His way of life and of seeing the world are passing.

I believe that this characterization of Dr. Hovaugh is a tool that King is using to make a comment about the relationship between indigenous people and the predominantly Christian majority by which they are surrounded.  Just as it appears to be time for Dr. Hovaugh to step aside, it is also time for patriarchal Euro-centric society to reevaluate the values that Dr. Hovaugh represents.  When that happens, maybe society, like the Old Indians, will be able to set things right this time.

Alberta’s students

The students in Alberta’s lecture on captivity and ledger book drawings are named for significant figures in American history, each of which have had some major impact on Native Americans after colonization.

“Henry Dawes was sound asleep at the back of the room, his head wrapped up in his arms.”  (King, 19).

henry-dawes-002-thHenry Dawes was a U.S. Senator and Representative who sponsored The Dawes Act, which determined the distribution of land to Native Americans in Oklahoma.  The Act divided the land into three different packages: 40 acres for general living, 80 for raising cattle, and 160 for farming.  The land amounts were unsuitable for economic viability, and designed to be fragmented among heirs.  A very interesting analysis of the language of the bill, and its use as a form of control over Native Americans can be found here, written by David Bartecchi.

“Hannah Duston and John Collier had moved their desks together again, and were virtually in each other’s laps.” (King, 19)

johncollierJohn Collier was an activist who opposed the Dawes Act.  He believed that Native culture should not be lost in the midst of the expanding dominant white culture, and vocally expounded the idea that indigenous survival was intrinsically linked with the retention of their lands.  His efforts led to a study of the indigenous condition in the United States, the findings of which were published as The Problem of Indian Administration, also called the Meriam Report.  (Wikipedia.org).

hannah_duston_by_stearnsHannah Emerston Duston lived in an English settlement called Haverhill during King William’s War.  At the time, the French were inciting Native raids on the settlements, and during such a raid, Duston, her infant daughter, and a nurse were taken captive.  Her child was killed, and after a long march, the two women were held on an island.  There, they met another captive, 14-year-old Samuel Leonardson.  One night, Duston and the boy stole tomahawks and killed ten of the indigenous people holding them; nine were killed by Duston.  The group then stole a canoe and made their escape, but Duston turned back to scalp the corpses so that she would have proof of her exploits.  After they returned to Haverhill, they went before the General Court in Boston and Duston was awarded £25 and each of her companions received half of that sum (Encyclopædia Britannica).

“Mary Rowlandson and Elaine Goodale were bent over, their heads locked together.” (King, 19)

maryrowlandsonMary Rowlandson was taken captive by an indigenous raid party and held for three months.  She was treated poorly, but her skills in sewing and knitting earned her better treatment than most others.  After being ransomed back to her husband for £20, she wrote an account of her captivity called The Soveraignty & Goodness of God, Together with the Faithfulness of His Promises Displayed; Being a Narrative of the Captivity and Restauration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson. The book was reprinted in 30 editions over the years, and selections from it have been included in many anthologies of American writing (Encyclopædia Britannica).

elainegoodale1Elaine Goodale Eastman was a novelist, poet, journalist, editor and activist; but most importantly to indigenous culture, she was a schoolteacher.  In the nineteenth century, she fought for Native rights, opposing boarding schools based on her belief that the children should not be removed from their families.  She opened a day school on a Sioux reservation, hoping that it would serve as a model for indigenous education.  Goodale believed that Native Americans must assimilate into the dominant culture, or risk annihilation.  She lived with the Sioux for a time, and later met a Santee Sioux named Ohiyesa Charles Eastman, who had been educated at Dartmouth and recieved a medical degree from Boston University.  Ruth Anne Alexander, Professor Emertius of English, said of her: “Elaine really loved the work and she liked the country, liked the people very much. But she never lost the notion that they should be changed to white, that they should be reformed, even though there was this contradiction in her own enthusiasm for it.”  (PBS: Schoolhouse Pioneers).

“Helen Mooney was sitting in the front row, writing down every word Alberta uttered.”  (King, 19)

mcclungHelen Mooney was a Canadian reformer; in 1890, she became a teacher and went to board with the family of Rev. James and Alice McClung and became more commonly known as Nellie McClung (TimeLinks).  She was an important figure in the suffrage movement in Canada, and also worked for social reform in rural life, the plight of immigrants, conditions in cities and factories, the movements for prohibition and women’s suffrage, World War I, the Depression and World War II.  She was a member of ‘The Famous Five,’ who petitioned to have the word ‘person’ in section 24 of the British North America Act, 1867 interpreted to include women in the definition.  The decision allowed women eligibility to be appointed to the Senate of Canada (Archives Canada).

George Armstrong Custer and George Morningstar

George Morningstar.  Latisha had even liked his name.  It sounded slightly Indian, though George was American, from a small town in Michigan.  He had come out west to see, as he put it, what all the fuss was about.  Tall, with soft light brown hair that just touched his shoulders.

(King, 131-2)

custer-seated1Though the above lines describe George Morningstar, they could almost as easily be applied to George Armstrong Custer, the famed figure of the American Civil War.  He is most famous for his ‘Last Stand’ at Little Big Horn.  Custer was born in Ohio, though he grew up in Michigan, and was assigned after the war to drive the Sioux west into reservations.  The Plains Indians gave him the nicknames “Yellow-Hair” and “Son of the Morning Star” (Wikipedia.org).

Like the relationship between Morningstar and Latisha, Custer too was intrigued by the Native lifestyle and is rumoured to have taken an Indian wife (Utley, 107).  Custer was also a prolific writer, who kept records of his journey across America (compiled in My Life on the Plains) and wrote long letters to his wife (compiled in The Custer Story: The Letters of General George A. Custer and His Wife Elizabeth).  George Morningstar consistently sends letters to Latisha after leaving her, until “finally they became boring.  Just like George.  Even the poetry dulled.  After Elizabeth was born, Latish stopped reading them altogether, stuffed them into a brown grocery bag in her closet instead, leaving them to collect like dust in a corner” (King, 250).

chief_sitting_bullIf she had read the letters, Latisha would have realised that George Morningstar was planning to attend the Sun Dance; the very event that Sitting Bull attended before the Battle of Little Bighorn.  There, he cut 100 strips from his arms and had a vision of soldiers falling from the sky, accompanied by a voice which told him: “I give you these for they have no ears” (A&E Biography).  Later that month, the La Kota would be victorious in battle against both Gen. Brig. Crook and Custer.  Custer underestimated the native forces, assuming that he would overrun them easily, and attacked them without waiting for reinforcements (A&E Biography).  Similarly, Morningstar underestimates the reaction that he will recieve by attending the Sun Dance, and is summarily dismissed for disobeying the rules and attempting to photograph the event (King, 386-7).

“Rose-Marie”, or “Indian Love Song” (Part Two)

“Are you married?” asked Jeanette.


“Very wise,” said Jeanette, leaning her head in Nelson’s direction (King, 131).

Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy were well known as onscreen sweethearts, having starred in eight films together.  However, they were also surrounded by rumours and innuendo that persist to this day, which speculate that they were involved offscreen as well.  Books and websites (such as www.maceddy.com) describe evidence of an ongoing relationship that was quashed by the studio, and it is to this that King alludes.  Both MacDonald and Eddy married other people and projected to the world that they were happy in their relationships, but they may have had a secret affair that ended in heartbreak and disappoinment for them both.  The relationship between King’s Jeanette and Nelson is strained (she even implies that Nelson is a dog (133), referring to the way that he is acting towards Latisha), and this colours the way in which Jeanette speaks to Latisha.  She speaks derisively about marriage, calling it a “mistake” (131), and asking if Latisha killed her husband; when she replies that she “threw him away,” Jeanette replies, “I love stories with happy endings” (135).

Latisha’s relationship with her husband, George Morningstar, is also strained and disappointing.  His character is an allusion to George Armstrong Custer, which will be the topic of my next post.

General George Custer (SonoftheSouth.net)

General George Custer (SonoftheSouth.net)

“Rose-Marie”, or “Indian Love Song” (Part One)

“I’ve been elected spokesperson for our table,” said the woman, folding the map and putting it back in her purse. “My name is Jeanette, and this is my friend Nelson. This is Rosemarie De Flor and her husband, Bruce.” (King 130)

The four customers sitting in Latisha’s Dead Dog Cafe are named in reference to Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, who appeared in the 1936 MGM musical, Rose-Marie.  In the film, they portrayed the characters Rose-Marie de Flor and Sergeant Bruce; a famous opera singer and an RCMP officer, respectively.

The Film

Rose-Marie is the story of a young opera singer, Marie de Flor, who travels into the Canadian wilderness to find her fugitive brother.  When her native guide robs and abandons her (twice), she is forced to rely on the help of Sergeant Bruce, the RCMP officer who is searching for her brother.  Although she attempts to be rid of him so that she can be free to help her brother, the two fall desperately in love.  Despite their hardships (including the arrest of her brother at the hands of Sergeant Bruce), they find their happy ending and fall blissfully into one another’s arms.

The clips below give some indication of the way in which the characters deal with indigenous people, and their feelings towards them.  Rose-Marie is initially very trusting of Boniface, although he appears preoccupied with getting away with her money.  His intentions may be pure (it does appear that he wants to give the money to Jack to aid in his flight from the country), but his actions certainly are not.  At the corn festival, she makes a few telling statements, which give insight into her opinion of indigenous people.  She places them in the past (“I never dreamed things like this were still going on!”) and considers them below romantic interest (“No other white people at all? No one to sing to?”). The manner in which Sergeant Bruce speaks about them is interesting, as well; he reveals that he has lived with the tribe for six months, and he demonstrates a great deal of knowledge about the festival (although he does speak a bit derisively about it, qualifying that “we only thank one God; they thank everybody.  The corn, the sun, the rain, the birds, their ancestors… they do a thorough job.”).  He also implies that the natives are below romantic interest: “When I caught myself singing to her, I went home.”

The characters in King’s novel demonstrate similar attitudes; Bruce certainly appears  to believe he is in a position of authority, having been with the RCMP for twenty-five years, and he refuses to believe that the cafe serves dog, based on the fact that he has never heard of such a thing(King, 131, 132).

In Green Grass, Running Water, Rosemarie makes reference to being an opera singer and Nelson replies, “When I’m calling you, oo-oo-oo, oo-oo-oo!” (King, 132). This is an allusion to another key reference to First Nations culture in Rose-Marie.  The most famous song from the film is ‘Indian Love Call,’ which Sergeant Bruce explains to Rose-Marie is a song based on an “old Indian legend:

The fact that Billy responds by sticking his head out of the kitchen to look at Nelson takes on a different significance in the light of this allusion; it seems that he is aware of the meaning of the song and Latisha waves him away, based on the source.

Indigenous Presence in Rose-Marie

Rose-Marie’s brother, Jack Flower (Jimmy Stewart in his second credited screen role), sends an indigenous man to his sister, to implore her help.  She insists on following the man, named Boniface, back to Canada, enlisting him as a guide into the wilderness.  Boniface is played by the Greek actor, George Regas.  In fact, many of the actors portraying indigenous characters in the movie were not of indigenous heritage, just as King implies in the novel:

… a tight community of Mexicans, Italians, Greeks, along with a few Indians, some Asians, and whites, all waiting in the shadows of the major studios, working as extras, fighting for bit parts in Westerns, playing Indians again and again and again. (King 182)

This mishmash of cultures in the actors is mirrored by the multitude of indigenous cultures portrayed in the scene; as Pierre Burton noted in his book, Hollywood’s Canada: The Americanization of Our National Image, the festival “seems to borrow something from every Indian culture: there are Plains headdresses, Mexican shawls, Aztec breech clouts, medicine men gigantic beaks, squaws with papooses on their backs, naked Indians, buckskin-clad Indians, west-coast totem poles, drums twelve feet high, and the Great Spirit knows what else – an aboriginal mulligan stew that makes a joke of Canadian Indian culture” (102).  All gathered in what we are to believe is northern Quebec.

Interestingly, one of the uncredited actors in the dance scene was Iron Eyes Cody, an Italian actor who “presented himself as a Native American” (IMDB.com).  While his name is not as dramatic as Iron Eyes Screeching Eagle, the name that Charlie’s father took in his professional career, it is very similar.

The Other Side

In this post, I have focused on the significance of the characters in the film, rather than the actors who portrayed them.  However, the allusion in King’s novel extends to the personal lives of the actors; their personal lives affect the manner in which Jeanette speaks to Latisha.  I will cover the allusion to the relationship between Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy, and how it relates to Latisha’s relationship, in the next post.

Blog Proposal: The Names

Explanation and Justification

Thomas King’s novel, Green Grass, Running Water, is saturated with allusions to literary and historical figures.  It has been a favourite novel of mine for years, yet every time I re-read it, I discover a deeper meaning.  There are many allusions of which I am not aware, and I am not well versed even in the ones I have uncovered.  Examining the allusions will bring out the depth of the novel, and from this, I hope to be able to produce intelligent and fresh commentary on the text.

Project Idea

“Words have meaning and names have power.”

-Author unknown

I propose to examine different allusions in this blog, placing them in their historical and/or literary context.  I will be looking at the relationship between names and characters.  Names indeed have power, and in literary works, the author has an opportunity to conciously select the names that the characters will bear.  By investigating the choices that King made in writing this novel, I hope to gain a greater understanding of how each name fits within the novel’s overall meaning.  The key topics I will be researching are:

  • The names of the major characters, and what they symbolize.
  • The significance of fictional place names (most significantly Blossom, Alberta).
  • Allusions in the names of supporting characters and what significance they have to King’s overarching story.