On Turtle’s Back

Reviewed by Heather Macfarlane

Only Thomas King could inject humour into the direst of situations and get away with it. While most readers know the prolific writer of Cherokee and Greek descent for his landmark novel Green Grass, Running Water, and his CBC radio comedy series Dead Dog Cafe, he has recently gained notoriety for his darker, hard-hitting non-fiction book, The Inconvenient Indian. His latest novel, The Back of the Turtle, continues in the latter vein, this time placing environmental apocalypse at the fore. Winner of the 2014 Governor General’s Award for Fiction, The Back of the Turtle is decidedly dystopian, but somehow the characters manage, in spite of environmental devastation, to live happily ever after. I’m not quite sure how King makes this work, and at times the promise of a happy new beginning for the survivors threatens to undermine the environmental message at the core of the novel. This, however, is the risk a humourist takes when dealing with serious subject matter, and a risk that King manages to overcome with his usual flair for storytelling.

The Back of the Turtle contains the trademark elements that appeal to an academic audience: King’s intertexts allude to Shakespeare, Invictus, the Bible and traditional Indigenous teachings, and the writing is highly self-reflexive, pointing to an artist at the peak of his career. The corporate villain signals his disappointment in receiving a novel as a gift, but later describes his imagination as “running away from his intellect, turning the ordinary and the mundane into vivid metaphor” which could aptly describe the process of writing. In honour of academic audiences, King even includes a critique of the corporatization of universities when he has the villain, Dorion Asher, endorse a move to “fold English, Sociology, and Psychology” together and “emphasize the benefits of university-corporate co-operation in an increasingly competitive world.”

In spite of these inclusions, The Back of the Turtle is not quite like King’s other books. Not much actually happens, and yet the novel is oddly compelling. It tells the story of a brilliant Anishinabe scientist named Gabriel who, after one environmental disaster too many, is forced to acknowledge his complicity in the destruction of not only the environment, but also his family. He travels west (mirroring colonial expansion) in order to kill himself. His boss is Dorion Asher, CEO of Domidion who represents the worst in environmental negligence and abuse of corporate power. The book alternates between chapters written from Asher’s perspective and chapters written from the perspective of the cast of characters in Smoke River, the West Coast reserve where Gabriel’s mother was raised. The nation represented and the mother’s people are never named, which is a little difficult to swallow in an era when we promote cultural specificity over generic Indigeneity, though I suppose the reserve is meant to represent every Indigenous nation that Canada deems disposable. It is this tiny community, ruined by the deadly bacterial agent Gabriel helped create, that ultimately and ironically offers Gabriel and the others a “new beginning.” I’m not sure that the world will get a second chance, or that the land is as resilient as King suggests, so what is it that makes the novel so compelling? I suspect it has something to do with the characters and the setting, the latter of which is familiar, and thus makes the disasters eerily real. The story is set on both the West Coast and in Toronto, and we read of Alberta’s tar sands, the leakage of run-off into the Athabasca and Mackenzie Rivers, and an abandoned ship carrying barrels of deadly bacteria approaching the St. Lawrence Seaway. The places and the threats are real, and so an eerie kind of recognition and discomfort accompanies the reading: this feels too real to be fiction.

The characters, on the other hand, defy the real, but placed as they are in a landscape we know, they take on a human aspect. Dorion Asher, corporate leader in “agribusiness,” is ruled by power and profit, and delights in setting up smokescreens to deflect blame for environmental destruction. “The occasional spill is the price we pay for cheap oil,” he tells the press, deflecting blame and hitting a chord with the reader, who creates the demand and is therefore complicit in the destruction. Asher, however, seems oddly harmless: his wife has just left him, and he shops compulsively for Rolex watches and designer suits in moments of crisis. The protagonist Gabriel, named for either the Christian archangel or one of the mythological twins in the creation story of the Woman Who Fell From the Sky, unites Christian and Indigenous mythologies, and though he calls himself “Death, the destroyer of worlds,” he redeems himself and earns his nickname Riel—a reference to the Métis warrior. Crisp, the seafaring Christ figure, oversees the community’s rebirth and speaks in parables, moving his arm “as though he expect[s] the sea to part” and asking, “Is not my word like fire?” Meanwhile, Crisp’s nephew Sonny, who appears to be autistic and gifted with second sight, assembles the salvage he collects and builds a towering beacon to summon the turtles that died in “the Ruin.”

When the first of the turtles returns to lay its eggs, it has a “wide indentation in its shell, as though it has been carrying a heavy weight for a long time.” This is the turtle of the creation story that is common to many Indigenous peoples, and the weight that it carries on its back is the world. The return of the turtle and later the raven signals the rebirth of the world in general, and the resilience of Indigenous peoples in particular. Though King’s happy ending is perhaps exaggerated and maybe too generous, the threat of environmental calamity is always there: Domidion’s abandoned ship full of deadly bacteria floats perpetually on the horizon, warning of impending disaster.

This review “On Turtle’s Back” originally appeared in Agency & Affect. Spec. issue of Canadian Literature 223 (Winter 2014): 166-67.

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