The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King was recommended to me by the same friend (and fan of King) who suggested I read Truth and Bright Water. It should come as no surprise to anyone that I loved both of them!
The Back of the Turtle follows a few different characters, each chapter alternating the narrator but the pseudo protagonist and catalyst of the story is a scientist named Gabriel Quinn. One day Gabriel abandons his prestigious job running a laboratory at Domidion, a morally questionable corporation, and goes to the Smoke River Reserve where his mother is from. There he encounters the small number of remaining residents: Nicholas Crisp, Mara, Sonny, and Soldier, who all have a voice. Even Dorian, the CEO of Domidion, has his say, his chapters create an excellent foil to the reserve as you follow his executive lifestyle in Toronto. The themes are classic and for that reason, riveting: it’s good versus evil, nature versus urbanization, wealth versus poverty. Add in imagery from Native and Christian mythology and a discussion on the moralities of science and oil become a literary masterpiece. It is all very King; funny and thoughtful with fantastic writing.
He also includes cheeky references. Despite the many years between the two books, Truth and Bright Water being originally published in 1999 and Back of the Turtle in 2014, they are linked by a dog named Soldier who appears in both novels. It is the same dog in fact, a secret which King shared with me at the 2015 Hagey Lecture. Like his role in Truth and Bright Water, Soldier connects the various characters living in and around the reservation. He belongs to no one person, an independent agent pushing the plot forward.
Often in the pursuit of literary excellence authors’ metaphors become epic or pretentious. My favourite thing about King is that he sheds all of that pretension but still accomplishes great writing. Case in point, one of my favourite lines from the book and now possibly my favourite character description in Canlit: “Thicke was a breakfast buffet. Hash brown hair, egg yolk eyes, soft butter lips, and a short stack of pancakes for a chin.”
Then there is the case of Sonny who seems almost too innocent. Running around the beach area, squatting in an abandoned hotel, and hammering objects in his way–he actually uses a hammer both as a tool and a crutch–Sonny is naive while also contemplative. Speaking in the third person, he is completely charming:
“Sonny spent a great deal of time looking at all the tubs of ice cream. Chocolate, strawberry, rocky road, peach, raspberry, root beer, praline, butterscotch, cherry jubilee. Forty-two flavours! Whatever you want, Dad told him. Use your best judgment. And on that day, Sonny had made the wrong decision. He did not use his best judgment. He had been tempted by all the colours, seduced by all the flavours. He had been test and found wanting.”
Chapters told from his perspective always filled me with joy and trepidation. I spent 88% of the book worrying about Sonny and if something bad would happen as tends to happen to all of King’s characters. Yet, these elements of normalcy and innocence work in favour of King’s message about environmental destruction, often adding weight to it. You truly dread the worst, a feeling which is often repressed in real life when the action is far away.
A message about stewardship over the earth and community is ever present in the novel. As Gabriel asks himself:
“Why did everyone put so much stock in relationships? People were like the universe. Expanding. That was the human condition. Moving away. Babies moved away from mothers. Children moved away from their parents. Lovers moved away from each other. The dying moved away from the living. At the end, like a failing star, you collapsed into yourself and disappeared.”
A dark and depressive sentiment, but not surprising for Gabriel who you come to know as a dark, depressive man. But of course, he comes to find community in the end and it saves him. Another King trademark. Surprisingly, The Back of the Turtle has an inspiring, and, I dare to say, hopeful ending. I won’t give spoilers but King impressively leaves off with a sense of satisfaction that nature will always renew itself despite the fact that human recklessness knows no bounds. It’s a cycle, which may either give you peace of mind or depress you depending on where you philosophy lies. As far as King novels go, that is pretty optimistic.