Truth & Bright Water by Thomas King Book Review

I actually don’t know if I’m going to publish this review, because it makes me a little sick to my stomach doing so. My Aunt Meg liked this book and my uncle gave it to me for my birthday last year because she thought I would enjoy it too. I miss Meg terribly every day, and I will love her long after my days are up. What makes me further upset I really didn’t enjoy this was its subject matter, Canadians with Indian heritage celebrating their culture and festivals, is one I hope the publishing world is forever willing to pay attention to. It hurts to have to talk trash about a book like that. This book was published 20 years ago and it found its audience. It was a national bestseller and I’m happy it did. I just can’t be a part of its fanbase.

Long story short, when referencing the title, Truth is a small town in rural Montana, and Bright Water is a reserve across the Canadian-American border that’s right next door. This “story”‘s main character is named Tecumseh, and he’s a 15-year-old Native American in a broken family, with separated parents, a rather anarchic cousin Lem, a ruthless uncle (and Lem’s dad) Franklin, plus an estranged auntie Cassie back in town after years away. Oh, and his trusty dog Soldier, who has more to do than any other human character. Lum is practicing his running, a stuck-up celeb named Monroe Swimmer has returned to try and reinvent himself, and some confrontations will take place before this annual Indian festival.

And that’s all I can really say about the plot. Even if I wanted to spoil things, I don’t think I’d be able to put much more, or add anything that would really generate excitement. So, I’ll just address this right here; in spite of said confrontations, Truth & Bright Water is one of the most plotless stories I’ve ever read ever. People occasionally begin yelling at each other, and then gears shift suddenly like a light-switch with no actual conclusion or compromise. Chapters go together like a short story collection of different writers, adventures that may share the subject of the town, but no hint that one chapter belongs in front of the last. The characters here just go about their days, small-talking to friends and killing time whenever they manage to get off of work. If that’s your thing, Truth & Bright Water is the book for you. But anyone hoping to advertise these people’s lives would most likely be called “not newsworthy” by the press, and most of the book is exactly the kind of thing teenagers expect adult books to be; all setting and character growth without any goals or heavy conflict to make it entertaining. What’s worse, Canadian fiction is often stereotypically not fast paced, and preachy of the godsend love of nature, farming and peace. Nature, farming and peace can be fast paced. There are books out there on those subjects I haven’t been able to put down. As a Canadian myself, it hurts extra to have to call this book a snooze fest, yet here we are.

Let me name some examples of how uninvolving the book is; Tecumseh and Lum think they see a woman jumping off a bridge to her presumptuous demise. It’s brought up here and there throughout the book, but just scattered, like the witnessing of a mysterious suicide was not something worth pursuing. Tecumseh one day gets a job out of the blue with the famous outsider artist back from the big city, and he never stops to think how insane it is and what opportunities might arrive. It’s just business as usual next chapter. He doesn’t even think about how he might have a challenge in front of him. I don’t know about you, but the day after getting hired for a new job tends to involve some pondering and worrying as you try to prepare. The main dog Soldier is nearly killed in an explosion involving a rifle, right in front of Tecumseh, and when it’s revealed it was Lum who fired the shot that just about did him in, they chat as if things are all fine. There’s no fear, anger, or even a hint of relief that his pet escaped death. I’m not exaggerating. Nothing! A twist comes up near the ending involving a goal a character was striving towards, and there is no sense of alarm that something went wrong that wasn’t supposed to. No emotion. There’s some talk about how Tecumseh’s mother wanted to be an actress at one point and gets a part in a local play. But there’s no discussion about what that will be down the road and what she truly wants out of it.

And I was going to say this; “it just feels lazy for a character to have lost her duck, and then spend days, weeks even, searching for it through the region, with no tears or backstory. Is she supposed to be heartbroken over her missing duck? Or just inconvenienced? And why is it so important?” Then I realized over some quick Google searches that this is a figure-of-speech character, a ghost from the past, a fact I’m unashamed to say I missed because of how disinterested I was. If you want to bring to light Indian-Canadians and discuss their ways of living, the best way to get people involved is to write with, oh, I don’t know. An emotional main conflict? Maybe a smidge of corruption that it’s up to the heroes to fix or at least confront? A goal to root for when the climax arrives? Maybe at least an idea of what it would mean for a goal to be accomplished? There’s an ambiguous ending towards an unknown character named Mia, and there’s a chance she and Tecumseh’s mother were a secret couple. That would be the sort of story I would’ve rather been reading. To top it all off, I knew halfway through I wasn’t going to recommend this book but I was expecting something grand at the end. What we get is a surprise conclusion that would be tragic if it made a lick of sense.

I was talking about all of this to my mother on a bike ride today, and when she mentioned my complaints, she said maybe the tone was the point, making readers think about how they picture arguments like that usually happening, and brought up that there’s a genre of books like this out there that focus on regular living instead of climbing to the top of a mountain. It’s true, the book has a strong point, and it’s the look into the lives of the characters. They’re thorough. Thomas King clearly understands what it feels like to go through the days in Canada being a racial minority in a little town where they can have their own tight groups. But the protagonist says at the start of Chapter 27 that summers in the towns of Truth and Bright Water are often boring, and there was no need to inform us of that.

If you like this, I’d try The Marriage Bureau for Rich People by Farahad Zama, and Quiet Screams to the Quiet Healer by Nilanjana Haldar

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