3:7 Thomas King’s Characters Walking Out of the Book


(Dam collapsing, Wikimedia Commons licence.)

Reading Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water is immensely rewarding – it provides a look into the lives of contemporary First Nation peoples as well as those on reserves.  King has spent quite some years at the University of Lethbridge, located in Lethbridge, Alberta, and close to the Kainai First Nation (Blood Tribe, traditional Blackfoot territory).  Some of the characters in Green Grass, Running Water could have walked off the region into the novel.  Speaking of characters, they are alive.  King is successful as a storyteller because he has created the characters and then let them live their lives.  Below is an analysis at a point of impending doom from the tension and the water in the dam.


Alberta Frank (pp. 304-311)

Alberta is the very likeable character in Green Grass, Running Water.  She is intelligent, independent, and harms no one.  Okay maybe eventually she will harm one of Lionel and Charlie, but not maliciously – choice is in the nature of romantic relationships.  At this point of the plot, she has lost her car, and many things are just going wrong for her – marriage, kids (King 304-6)?  How First Nation does she want to be, or how white?  When Alberta breaks down in front of Connie the police officer, the reader could be relieved – she deserves the emotional release and company (King 309-11).  She is likeable for her strength.  Unlike Charlie or Lionel, she does not try to run away from her identity.  Instead, she does things like presenting history from the First Nation perspective as an academic (Horne).  She refuses to be subversive to the settler culture (Horne).  Alberta Frank is relatable – she is human with mortal weaknesses.  She asks existential questions like what should come of life.  At this point, she has “… [t]wo men, a good job, no responsibilities”, yet, she is not happy (King 309).


Dr. Joseph Hovaugh (pp. 312-315)

Continuing with existentialism – what does Dr. Hovaugh live for?  With his name being a play on the Judeo-Christian creator, is he omnipotent (Flick 144)?  He certain does assign significance to his things – the antique office desk from his wife, and the Karmann-Ghia convertible, for example.  He remains fairly flat in the narrative, and remains mostly as a keeper of order in the mental institution and garden.  Dr. Hovaugh is uncomfortable in Canada due to its “openness to the sky”, “wideness to the land”, and being generally disorganized” (King 312-4).  He is quite aware of his place in the hierarchy as a doctor and institution head.  This attitude is expressed in his interactions with Babo, who is dismissed by him as inferior.  He asks if her ancestors have been slaves – as small talk.  The question is answered eloquently by Babo: “Nope…  But some of my folks were enslaved” (King 313).  It is unclear if Dr. Hovaugh truly understands the difference.  Though given authority, he is fairly incompetent at tracking down the escapees.  The powerlessness is dramatized as he shouts and motions in the storm over his lost car (King 315).  He, the creator with his order and garden, keeps the First Nation creators as prisoners (Cox 231).


Lionel Red Dog (pp. 316-322)

Lionel is a different kind of prisoner – that of fate.  Things tend to go wrong for him, ever since he has been shipped to the Toronto hospital as the wrong sick child, fate has continued to play cruel jokes on him.  He works at Bill Bursum’s television and stereo store, after accidentally becoming a felon in the United States and losing his government job as a result.  King’s portrayal of Lionel is very believable because it is balance – he has faced discrimination, but he also contributes to his own fate.  For example, Lionel has planned to go back to university, however he has not acted.  And here he is at the store, age forty, with his new jacket (King 316).  Guess what is playing on the television map?  It has to be a western, starring Portland Looking Bear and John Wayne – the latter being Lionel’s hero since young age.  What is forthcoming is a decisive moment for Lionel, who has been accused of self-oppression and wanting to be white (Deshaye).  What is forthcoming is a gift and a boost – he needs it, after losing his government job, not wanting to be involved with his band, not going back to school, and probably not winning Alberta Frank’s love.  This time, John Wayne dies (King 324).  This time, Lionel Red Dog sees a different reality; quite a gift from the four tricksters.


Works Cited

Cox, James H.  “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 24.2 (Spring, 2000): 219-46.  Web.  25 Jul. 2016.

Deshaye, Joel.  “Tom King’s John Wayne: The Western in Green Grass, Running Water.”  Canadian Literature 225 (Summer, 2015): 66-80,167.  Web.  25 Jul. 2016.

Flick, Jane.  “Reading Notes for Thomas King’s Green Grass Running Water.Canadian Literature 161-162 (Summer/Autumn, 1999).  Web.  25 Jul. 2016.

Horne, Dee.  “To Know the Difference: Mimicry, Satire, and Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water.”  Essays on Canadian Writing 56 (Fall, 1995).  Web.  25 Jul. 2016.

King, Thomas.  Green Grass, Running Water.  Toronto: HarperPerennial Canada, 1999.  Print.


  1. Hey John,

    Thanks for your post. I found your analysis of Alberta and Lionel to be completely in line with how I saw their characters. Alberta is definitely a likeable character for her intelligence and independence. And I found I empathized with Lionel’s character. I wonder if in some ways these characters represent a very human approach to navigating the difficult waters of straddling two or more cultures, of encountering racism, and working to overcome the cards life has dealt you. While Alberta fights and struggles to make her own way, Lionel dreams of more, but settles for what is “easy”–what won’t ruffle too many feathers and what won’t cause him to take too many risks.

    I also liked your evaluation of Dr. Hovaugh. I found the connection between him as a creator focused on keeping order and fearing mess to be quite compelling.

    Do you think that by mixing in just enough realism, King has created characters that not only communicate a deeper message, but that are relatable so that they point to the reader’s own misconceptions, flaws, and weaknesses? I would imagine that was King’s intent… But I’m curious to hear your thoughts.


    1. Hi Janine,

      Thanks for your comments. I like your observation on King’s realism. The characters are believable because they exhibit human traits and flaws. For example, Alberta’s indecisiveness, or Dr. Hovaugh’s obsession with control. King has taken things from life, and mixed them with orality and literature. The end product is brilliant in my opinion.

      – John

  2. Hi John,
    I liked your empathy toward the characters and the connections you drew. I wonder whether you saw any general differences between how the First Nation men and women were portrayed; I thought King put the women in leadership roles as stable, able and successful, while the men were more aimless and troubled, generally. I wondered whether King was doing this in order to restore a maternal organization to First Nations’ culture, and dismantle the paternalistic organization imposed by colonialism. I’m interested in what you think of this idea. Thanks, Claudia

    1. Hi Claudia,

      Great question! Yes I see the dichotomy. The First Nation women in the narrative just seem to “get it”, whereas the men are confused and need more time to get to where they are destined (or not). The colonial context is there, and becomes comical when Noah is presented as a sex offender – it is less funny once one dwells on it though. King does a competent job of presenting the First Nation maternal ways: cooperative, creating, and caring.

      – John

  3. I found Alberta Frank to be a fairly interesting character, particularly where she was juggling back in forth between the two guys in order to avoid commitment (I feel some similarity in this regard). Event though she accepts her identity, she does not seem to want to accept responsibility for things (or at least begin to do things that require so), like escaping from relationships. Do you think this is why she feels unfulfilled? That even though she identities as something (which is a problem for many), that her possible issues with commitment or not wanting to move forward is really hindering her?

    1. Hi Sylvia,

      Thanks for your comment. The easy answer would be there is a tension between identities. Charlie, who is more “white” and a lawyer, or Lionel who stays closer to his roots, and less successful by western standards. We all need to consider life, which is not “black and white”. There are always things left not answered, or at least not in an expediently manner. I see it as a representation of modern First Nation existence – two worlds, many choices, trying to make sense.

      – John

  4. Hi John,

    Thank you for your post – I really enjoyed reading it! I am intrigued by Alberta Frank’s character: like you mentioned, she seems to have everything going for her – a good job, two men vying for her attention, and no responsibilities….and yet, she is unhappy. Why do you reckon she feels this way? To me, it feels like it may be because she does not feel like she is challenged enough: everything seems to be going well for her, and she does not really have to work hard for anything – or have the opportunity to do any fulfilling work. Would you agree? I’d love to hear your thoughts!

    1. Hi Amelia,

      Interesting remark! So there is a supply and demand thing going on – could be? If one of Charlie or Lionel withdraws from the relationship, Alberta could be in a bit of emotional distress. Do we long for what we do not have? I remember reading somewhere it is more difficult for intelligent people to attain happiness, is this the case for Alberta? How about Thomas King?

      – John

  5. Hi John,
    I enjoyed your post, I choose different characters to focus on, so I really appreciated your insight on these characters. Specifically Dr. Hovaugh as his relationship seems to be King’s representation of the relationship shared by the Christian society and Native society. As his name also derives from the Christian God he seems to be representing the Christian majority. His inability to track down the Natives can be seen as the his inability to understand the Natives. He doesn’t even seem ti be able to understand Canada as he felt quite uncomfortable there, this seems similar to the European reaction of Canada. It probably didn’t compare to their life back home, and all they saw was a society and place they wanted to change and mold into something similar to their own.
    Mariam Manghat

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