Behind the Characters: Green Grass, Running Water

I wanted to focus on those characters within the interrogation scenes starting near the beginning of Green Grass Running Water (GGRW). I found these characters are not often talked about but I found them to be quite interesting and intriguing, particularly with their connection to Melville’s story “Benito Cereno.”  There are many similarities between GGRW and this story and I was interested in exploring them through three characters: Babo Jones, Sergeant Ben Cereno, and Jimmy Delano.

Babo Jones is an African-American who works at the mental hospital where four Indians escaped from. The Babo in GGRW is akin to the Babo in Melville’s story “Benito Cereño” in Piazza Tales. In this story, Babo is a black slave who is on board the ship the San Dominick as a leader of the slave revolt and deceives Captain Amasa Delano, their master, into thinking nothing is going on, when really the ship is heading for freedom in Africa. This is similar to what happens in GGRW, as Babo is revealed to have helped the four Indians escape. We also think that the Captain Delano is in charge in Melville’s story, like we think the sergeants are in GGRW. There are little jokes made by King within GGRW as well, such as when she carries around Life Saver candies, in reference to Babo and the ship.

Sergeant Ben Cereno is the sergeant initially interrogating Babo about the whereabouts of the Indians who escaped. Like Babo, this character is reference another in “Benito Cereño.”  Babo asks Sergeant Cereño is his name is Italian or Spanish, then guessing that his first name is Ben and that it is Babo’s boy’s name. This is similar to what occurs in GGRW as well. We find out Babo’s race when he refers to her as “Aunt Jemima,” a  racial slur that references the fictional character used to market breakfast foods like maple syrup.  Sergeant Cereno appears to be in charge during the interrogation; however; Babo had all the knowledge and power during the questioning, even if she seemed all over the place with frequent topic changes. Like the Captain’s mistreatment of the slaves, he treated Babo poorly, and had trouble getting information he could have otherwise obtained.

Jimmy Delano is Sergeant Cereno’s assistant and also is involved with the interrogation process with Babo. Again, there seems to be a strong connection between this character and the one in “Benito Cereño,” either Captain Delano or, more likely, Columbus Delano. Columbus Delano was the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs and a career politician. He defended the BIA against charges of mistreating Indians despite evidence. Eventually this lead to his resignation.  Because Jimmy was more patient than Sergeant Cereno, he was able to obtain more information from Babo. In this sense he is more similar to the captain of “Benito Cereno,” as he was able to discover the slaves overtook the ship in a similar manner.

Works Cited

Flick, Jane. “Reading Notes for Thomas King’s “Green Grass Running Water”” Canadian Literature (1999): 140-72. UBC Blogs. Web. 22 July 2016.

King, Thomas (June 1, 1994). Green Grass, Running Water. New York: Bantam Books.

4 thoughts on “Behind the Characters: Green Grass, Running Water

  1. Dilinie Perera

    Hi Silvia,

    I too think these characters and their outside stories are very interesting. The only question I want to ask though is about Delano. What are your thoughts on the use of a more positively character named after, or has their name connected to, more negatively perceived people? The name, as you have said, connects to the captain of a slave ship and a shady politician. So what do you think of King working that name into a more acceptable character? Sorry if this a short comment or if my question is a bit confusing.


    1. SylviaHalpert Post author

      Do you mean if he used a different name? Or something that fits better? I think that King might have been more subtle for a reason, like we could choose who we felt it fit more. But maybe you are right in maybe it should have been to a character that made a bit more sense. However, I think it works in this situation, as we have to guess it a bit more.

  2. natasha heine

    Hi Sylvia,

    I liked what you said about how it would appear at first that Sergeant Cerano is in control of the interrogation, but in reality it is Babo who has all the knowledge and power. He needs something that she has, so really she has the upper hand in the interrogation! It is interesting that Cerano underestimates Babo because of the way she speaks, and how she can’t seem to remember things, but she is actually very smart and holds some pretty important knowledge that he is oblivious to! Do you think that King is consciously trying to give women, in particular minority women, in his novel more power that many are unfortunately denied in reality? Babo is a good example, but King’s telling of the creation story also presents the woman’s role (First Woman) as a creator who has more agency than the female figure in the Biblical creation story (Eve). In addition to this GGRW is filled with a lot of strong female characters. Like Alberta who takes charge of her own reproductive rights and rejects the institution of marriage, or Norma who plays a significant role in leading her nephew Lionel back to his traditions and his community. What are your thoughts on King’s portrayal of women in his novel. Is he consciously trying to subvert gender roles?

    – Natasha

    1. SylviaHalpert Post author

      I think in ways he is. There is the part where Babo is considered ‘property’ moreso, and there’s some themes but appear against feminism, but overall I think they are shown in a more positive light. Babo prevails against the men, and Alberta gets her say in how she wants to run her life. I think there may be some negative notes in that Alberta does not seem satisfied not choosing, but overall I think King presented strong female characters in GGRW.


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