MIX together a story that includes native-American and other creation myths, 20th-century Indians both modern and "traditional," white people who seem a bit confused, oral story-telling and straight novelistic narrative, and you're likely to produce a disaster, a literary dog's breakfast.
Or, if you're Thomas King - whose first novel, "Medicine River," was sweet, poignant, and funny - then you somehow weave it all together in a way that leaves the reader fully satisfied.
"Green Grass, Running Water" is the tale of a contemporary Blackfoot family in Canada. Lionel Red Dog, approaching middle age, is stuck in a dead-end job selling TVs and stereos in the town of Blossom. His sister Latisha runs a tourist-trap cafe. Uncle Eli Stands Alone was a university professor in Toronto but has moved back to the family cabin, which stands in the way of a giant dam. Cousin Charlie Looking Bear is a smooth lawyer and front man for the company building the dam. Back on "the reserve," Lio nel's mother likes to try out gourmet recipes but has to substitute elk for artichokes in an Italian dish.
Then there are four very old Indians named Ishmael, Hawkeye, Robinson Crusoe, and the Lone Ranger. They seem to be men, but that's not quite certain. They may be 80 or 90 years old or they may go back much farther than that. Much, much farther. The only thing certain is that they periodically escape from a mental institution to "fix up part of the world" - like having the cavalry disappear at the last minute in all the video recordings of John Wayne movies.
That Indian trickster Coyote is wandering around in there too, carrying on a running conversation with God and earnestly trying to be "helpful." Meanwhile, automobiles keep disappearing in puddles of water.... (Trust me, it really does work.)
King is in a unique position to observe the state of affairs within Indian families and communities and between Indians and whites. His father was Cherokee, his mother Greek and German. He taught native studies at the University of Lethbridge in Alberta, Canada, for 10 years and now chairs the Native Studies Department at the University of Minnesota.
Coinciding with Anglo North America's celebration of Christopher Columbus's "discovery" of the continent, some prominent Indian writers have produced very tough works presenting a native view of the cultural clash that has lasted 500 years.
King takes a different path. His message is subtle. He doesn't hammer on the deception and brutality toward Indians that marked Western expansion in America. He reminds readers of it, but with a light and sometimes bitingly humorous touch.
King's characters are not particularly heroic or wicked. They worry about their mistakes and wonder what comes next. They laugh at themselves. Readers will like them a lot. A sense of shared humanity will break down barriers and stereotypes.
King's title is taken from the oft-broken promise that Indian treaties would be in force for "as long as the grass is green and the waters run." With this, his second strong novel, one hopes that King will continue - with humor and grace - to sort out the remnants of that sorry period in North America's history.