February 14, 2011
Review: Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King
I had every intention of participating this year in Kerry Clare’s Canada Reads spin-off, Canada Reads Independently. Kerry’s books are frequently more eclectic, more off-the-beaten-path and more carefully chosen than some of what we’ve seen on the CBC over the last two years. This year’s line-up was particularly independent looking, to the point where I was actually unable to find one of the books – Play the Monster Blind by Lynn Coady. I ordered and bought the remaining four a month ago with every intention of devouring them as quickly as possible.
The bad news part of this post is, I don’t think I’m going to make it. I’m a bit burnt at the moment on inflicted picks – not, of course, that I suppose I won’t enjoy these. But after the official Canada Reads books I’m feeling a little Canada’ed-out and need a real change of pace. Some comfort reading is in order over here, and I’ve a line up of Rushdie, Eco and Frank Herbert to help me recover. I did, however, manage to read one of the five picks, Truth and Bright Water by Thomas King.
Late last year in her fairly contentious piece in the Canadian Notes and Queries, The Other F-Word, Nicole Dixon isolates what she calls the “girl voice”; a “first-person, present tense, child-like” narrator which, Dixon claims, is symptomatic of a craving for “perpetual adolescence” amongst Baby Boomers. In the context of feminism, this seems to point to an infantilizing of female characters in literature. Yet something about the argument left me skeptical, and with Truth & Bright Water I realized why. I don’t, first of all, buy that this is phenomenon restricted to literature’s female population, nor do I buy that it suggests a desire to cling to adolescence.
Truth & Bright Water, almost the first novel I read after finishing Dixon’s piece, features exactly the kind of protagonist Dixon is singling out: 15-year-old Tecumseh, narrating in the first person his fragmented and uncertain present tense existence. King, who was 56 when he published Truth, certainly is a Baby Boomer, but it would be small of the reader to interpret his choice of narrator as a youthful avatar. Truth & Bright Water, like many of the books Dixon singles out (among them A Complicated Kindness and Lullabies for Little Criminals) is about a particular kind of life in the balance. It happens that adolescents embody transition and potential very well. We don’t know, for much of the book, how things are going to turn out for the protagonist, and not strictly because the book may offer up further plot twists. An adolescent life is one whose path hasn’t been chosen yet. Will life’s trials beat them down, set them on a darker path? Or will they overcome them, learn to weather them, and emerge a wiser, stronger survivor?
On the one hand, we have every cause to be troubled by elements in the life of our hero: his mother is secretive and emotionally distant while his father is irresponsible and unreliable. Tecumseh’s best friend and cousin, Lum, is erratic, overbearing and in his own way, oppressively reliant on his younger cousin. Money, employment and stability seem elusive in the life of young Tecumseh. But on the other hand, Tecumseh is still young and pretty well grounded. He has a nice dog (and don’t take this trivially – Soldier was a remarkably stabilizing force in this novel, even if none of it is written from his point of view), loving members of his extended family, and a crazy artist who has taken him on as an assistant and possible protegee. For much of the novel you feel things could go either way for Tecumseh: and not in terms of his plot, of this story. It’s his whole life, his whole future that seems able to go either way, depending on which forces outweigh the others. And through him, it’s the future of his entire community, the existence he represents that could go either way.
I think this is a great strength of the adolescent-narrated novel, be that youth male or female. There’s a sense of real potential or loss that keeps you holding your breath through every introduced pressure that I don’t think would hold the same weight if the character were older. In an adult, we might have the story of redemption (life already weighed to heavily in the CON column, but perhaps it’s never too late to turn things around) or a story of tragedy (life rolling along quite nicely until something soul-shattering occurs), but you don’t get that nice tension you get in a life undecided. The protagonist’s innocence is also vital to maintaining the tension: when Tecumseh’s mother disappears for a weekend, he assumes she has gone off on vacation, to a resort in Alberta they once visited as a family. An older, more cynical person might have had other suspicions (as Tecumseh’s father did). Similarly Tecumseh never quite puts all the pieces together with regards to his mother and aunt’s history with the artist, Monroe Swimmer. These benefits he gives to his doubts are vital in maintaining his course towards, possibly, a bright future. I don’t want to suggest that survival requires ignorance, though: just that it buys our hero a little time until he has developed the strength to assume that knowledge.
I was pleased with the book. It made a satisfying read. But before I sign off on it (You May Read It Now, Loyal Reader) I want to point out the presence of one conceit that has become a pet peeve of mine: the presence of art or intellectualism as a healing force. As Tecumseh comes towards the end of the book we get the sense that, despite the tragedies he’s had to witness or survive, he’s going to be All Right In The End because he’s been taken under the wing, to some extent, by Munroe Swimmer. Munroe turns out to be not just a producer of kitschy tourist-art; but an internationally traveled art restorer and liberator of aboriginal artifacts. Beneath his crazy-artist guise is a man, possibly the only man in the book, really aware of the greater political, historical, and economic issues that have brought his community, embodied by Tecumseh, to this precarious position it is in. He takes on Tecumseh for reasons that aren’t really clear – he might have a history with his mother, or Tecumseh might just have been the right-aged-kid present at the right moment. But by the end of the book, we learn that Tecumseh is recovering, stabilizing, in some part with help from music lessons Munroe is now sponsoring and encouraging.
Which is fine, but I can’t help but feel there’s a conceit here on the part of the book’s very intellectual and upwardly mobile author. Of all the “positive” influences in Tecumseh’s life, art and music are the only two that seem to be uniquely offered to him. These are the tools in his arsenal that might make the difference between his future and the life lived by his neighbours. They aren’t even “traditional” in any sense, giving us the sense that it’s community values or consistent, deep-held traditions that are keeping Tecumseh rooted – it’s the “civilizing” effect of art and, frankly, Western music. What are we to read into this? I found myself wondering, especially given that Tecumseh didn’t seem drawn to art or artistic expression prior to the gifted piano. This wasn’t him learning to “be himself”, this was the medicinal application of High Culture. Is it really such a salve? What does it mean to cultures who don’t necessarily produce “high culture” when it is treated as such?
Still, this is a lovely book. I’ll get to the other Indies in time (I promise!), but I am glad and gratified that Kerry’s competition got this one into my list this year!