Each month, we ask a member of the Vanderbilt Divinity School faculty to recommend a book they are currently reading. Our October recommendation is offered by Laurel C.Schneider, Professor of Religious Studies, Religion and Culture. Professor Schneider recommends “Green Grass, Running Water ” by Thomas King.
Thomas King’s Green Grass, Running Water is a brilliant, quirky novel that plays havoc with the lines between text and reality, history and presence, spirit/s and everyday life. King is a writer of mixed Native American (Cherokee) and European heritage whose primary experience of life has been in the colonized world of Christian Native America. The novel has several synchronic (synoptic?) stories that run alongside each other throughout the book. There are four Native American young adults returning to the reservation where they were reared to celebrate the 40th birthday of one of them. Theirs are everyday stories of family difficulties, lost loves, professional hopes, and uncertain identities in a modern world. There are four old people – strange figures who start out in a mental hospital somewhere in the upper Midwest and whose names change, as do their apparent genders, as do their ages and other identifiers, as they go along. All we know of them is their dialogue, their focus on telling the story right in order to fix something (again). Then there is the hapless hospital administrator and canny nurse who discuss these four, and decide to follow them when they disappear from the ward. And finally, there is Coyote and the narrator, who wander around the other stories. Four stories, four directions. A less than orderly tale. We could say that this is a very Native American novel.
Almost everything in this novel is biblically inflected. Almost everything in it is funny. Much in it is not funny, even when it is. Choctaw Biblical scholar Steve Charleston wrote about “the old testament of Native America” in order to demonstrate a different perspective on the Canaanites, turning the tables on those biblical readings that valorize the settler colonial Israelites. King’s novel can be read as a kind of narrative exegesis on the Genesis themes of creation, fall, and the role of water. Beyond those biblical themes, the theological importance of this novel is its ability to point past the modern obsession that relegates all strangeness to delusion and all spirits to fantasy. As Edward Farley noted in his wonderful little book Deep Symbols, our era has lost its capacity for enchantment. What if there are four elders who walk the earth unburdened by the dichotomy we draw between fiction and fact? What if Coyote does slink through all the ordered doctrines? What if these are metaphors, but not just metaphors? Theology has a long way to go to reintroduce the possibility of enchantment, not solely as a means to understanding, but as a description of the world beyond the brittle line we draw between fact and fiction. In another wonderful novel entitled Alif the Unseen, a character exclaims, “Find me someone to whom the hidden folk are simply real, as described in the Book. You’ll be searching a long time. Wonder and awe have gone out of your religions. You are prepared to accept the irrational, but not the transcendent.” Green Grass, Running Water, I suggest, is a hefty portion of both.