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Truth and Bright Water

by Thomas King

Cousins Tecumseh and Lum live in the small American border town of Truth. Bright Water, a reserve, is across the river in Canada. One night, the boys see a woman jump into the river. Then, after they find a child’s skull, Tecumseh starts asking questions. But Truth and Bright Water is a mystery only in the loosest sense. This novel is really about balance: leaving, returning, giving away, and taking back.

And it’s typical Thomas King. As in Green Grass, Running Water, King’s 1993 Governor General’s Award-nominated novel, the characters speak in non-sequiturs. If the non-native reader is momentarily confused, well, good – that’s the point. It puts non-native people in a non-dominant position, just to show them how it feels. King also slides in sly allusions to aboriginal history, forcing the non-native reader to make sense of unfamiliar cultural references.

At first Truth and Bright Water seems like a slight family tale about secrets and sacrifice: Tecumseh’s auntie returns home, his mother chases a lifelong dream, and his grandmother offers counsel. But there are some big themes at work here. The author skewers stereotypical ideas about aboriginal authenticity and tradition – dissing both the buckskin-clad German tourists at the Bright Water Indian Days powwow and the aboriginal artisans who’ll say anything is traditional if the price is right – and he makes caustic observations about colonial structures and how they continue to adversely affect the lives of aboriginal people. Churches, residential schools, museums, international borders – they all get the treatment here, courtesy of one of the characters, Monroe Swimmer, Famous Indian Artist, who has escaped from Toronto.

Truth and Bright Water is an edgy, bitter, brilliant elegy that triumphs in its small-scale repatriation scheme. Every character in this book has an idea about what’s wrong with the world: all the reasons are different, and all are true. But the unfinished bridge between the communities of Truth and Bright Water proves that most of them are thinking too small.