- In order to tell us the story of a stereo salesman, Lionel Red Deer (whose past mistakes continue to live on in his present), a high school teacher, Alberta Frank (who wants to have a child free of the hassle of wedlock—or even, apparently, the hassle of heterosex!), and a retired professor, Eli Stands Alone (who wants to stop a dam from flooding his homeland), King must go back to the beginning of creation. Why do you think this is so?
It wasn’t until I read this question and tried to puzzle out exactly what Professor Paterson was getting at that I saw the connection between King’s fixation on the beginnings of creation and the stories of Lionel, Alberta, and Eli. I’m not sure why I didn’t see it before — but their stories meld Christian myth and Native American myth perfectly.
The fact that King’s four parts of the book start and are interwoven with four different variations of a Native American creation story, stories in which traditional Native American figures meet Biblical, fictional, or historical Christian/European figures, is a sign that one of King’s aims for the novel might have been to show that Christian and Native American myths can co-exist. Why not expand that concept further, by including two of the most important Christian myths into contemporary times, but enacted by Native Americans and their deities/spirits?
I’ll start with the easy one. Eli Stands Alone literally stands alone in the face of a massive dam project which, if successful, would submerge his family home and the surrounding land in water, probably forever. In this we can see the allegory of Native Americans being overrun, or submerged, by European immigrants. We can see contemporary issues where Native American tribal lands and treaties are overlooked in the place of progress (or golf courses), with Eli representing Native Americans as a whole and the dam project Canada’s predominantly white governmental and commercial authorities.
But, and this is what clicked when I read the question, we can also see the story of Noah and the Flood. Symbolism is huge in King’s novel — can’t see the forest for the trees, in some cases. I think the fact “[i]t was a little over a month before the waters went down” (King, 420), and that the four Indians’ efforts to “fix the world” (King, 123) calls for a flood makes the Biblical references hardly coincidental. King isn’t coy about the allusion either — after the dam’s flood, the four Indians turn to Coyote and remind him of how “[t]he last time [he] fooled around… the world got very wet” (King, 416), implying that Noah’s flood was actually the work of Coyote, not God.
Or, as King tries to show us by mixing and matching Christian and Native American myth, by Coyote and God. King uses the same technique in the story of Alberta.
When I first read this question, I got the impression that Dr. Paterson was meaning that Alberta was a lesbian (“or even, apparently, the hassle of heterosex!”) But when coupled with the Biblical connotations of Eli’s story, Alberta became to me another Virgin Mary — or, rather, a woman experiencing immaculate conception. The novel does not clearly state who the father is, and Alberta herself is adamant that she cannot be pregnant. But why make Alberta pregnant? Why follow or shadow the myth of Jesus Christ’s conception? Well, Coyote again seems to play a part in that story as well — “‘But I was helpful, too,’ says Coyote. ‘That woman who wanted a baby'” (King, 416). And again the old Indians say “You remember the last time you did that?” (ibid), implying that Coyote was responsible for Jesus’ conception.
Lionel, however, doesn’t exactly fit the bill. I’m not overly familiar with Biblical stories (except for the big ones), so perhaps there is a Gospel of Bob or Parable of a Fig that matches Lionel’s story of regret and redemption. But in Lionel I see something else, something far less concrete and recognizable — a feeling versus a story or an event. Lionel represents, to me, the true Christian path, or what Christianity claims to offer its followers — a chance at salvation. Lionel has made mistakes in the past (and though the mistake were in fact made by his colonial government, I want to look at his life in point form), he has lost his way, he has lost his belief (in whatever that may be) — and yet he finds a way to redeem himself, to get out of his “funk,” to become a good man. Colonialism aside, Sun Dance aside, Lionel stands as homo humanius, the formula all men (and women) should follow to find peace.
My read of Lionel is backed up by his strangely non-committal presence in the novel. The only true choice Lionel makes is to get his life together — at all other times he speaks without being heard, listens without hearing what people say, and accepts events (and jackets) without question. He lacks agency, and motive, as yet is arguably the main character in the novel. The Four Indians leave Florida to save Lionel, a thought just as ridiculous as thinking that God will go out of His way to watch over you, or your loved ones.
The fact that King recreated Biblical stories of the flood and immaculate conception, as well as the Christian message, in the lives of Native Americans is perhaps a suggestion that we aren’t so different after all. Or maybe that we are different, but not incompatible. There is room enough in the world for both narratives, Christian and Native American. (Any Hamilton fans out there will appreciate how hard it is for me NOT to include a link to The World Was Wide Enough. Carry on.)
This diffusion of myths through different mouths, bodies, and cultures reminds me of the strangely eerie fact that almost all major religions have a Flood with a capital F story. The Judeo-Christian religions like to claim the story of the Flood, and Noah’s heroic actions with a hammer, as solely their own. And yet in the Epic of Gilgamesh*, the same story is enacted almost to a T, despite the tablets having been created in the 7th century B.C. (and perhaps recited before that). Now, we can of course just attribute this to Christianity borrowing another aspect of different religions and calling them its own. Or, as King seems to suggest in his novel, we can start to recognize that stories do not belong to any one religion, or any one people. Stories are shared equally and belong equally to all humans — big, small, white, black, Native American, etc. The one universal right that humankind has is to imagine, and be comforted, by story. The fact that two Biblical stories can fit so well into the lives of Native American people in the 1990s with differing circumstances without the world ending is evidence of that.
*I want to apologize for the Creationist tone of this website. I found that their comparison of Genesis and Gilgamesh was interesting, as well as their blatant anti-anything-not-Christian and “liberal” scholars.
Izzard, Eddie. “The Origin of Christianity, Circle (2000).” YouTube, uploaded by Chris Z, December 18, 2009. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yCIvmdABBnU.
King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Toronto: HarperPerennial, 2007. Print.
Lorey, Frank. “The Flood of Noah and the Flood of Gilgamesh.” Institution for Creation Research. Acts and Facts 26 (3), 1997. Web. Accessed July 20, 2016.
“Standoff at Oka.” CBC Learning, 2001. Web. Accessed July 20, 2016.