The Back of the Turtle

Reviewed by: Alec Follett
The Back of the Turtle | Thomas King

The Back of the Turtle \ Thomas King

A conversation between two characters highlights the main concerns in Thomas King’s new novel: the destruction of the environment and the stories told about these catastrophes. In response to Gabriel’s list of environmental disasters, Nicholas proclaims, “It’s well and proper to write what must be seen and to speak what must be heard.” Environmental issues as they affect Indigenous Peoples run through King’s oeuvre, and he is certainly no stranger to narrative. In fact, he has spent much of his career explaining the centrality of stories to our lives.

In The Truth About Stories, for example, King argues that stories have the power to lead us toward or away from environmental destruction. If they have such power, and King has made a convincing case that they do, we should pay special attention to stories and their effects.

After a 15-year hiatus, King has returned to the novel. Writing fiction is an act that he describes in The Inconvenient Indian as “buttering warm toast.” And the toast is sustaining, for The Back of the Turtle, with its superb dialogue, is entertaining and meaningful, and serves as a reminder of how one might live with compassion in a world where environmental destruction is the norm.

Dorian, CEO of a company responsible for the event known as the GreenSweep disaster, tells certain stories to promote his interests, knowing that “if you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” Gabriel, the scientist who created the GreenSweep herbicide, had once been susceptible to such stories that had become truth. “Science was supposed to have been the answer. World hunger. Disease. Energy. Security. Commerce. Biology would save the world. Geology would fuel the future. Physics would make sense of the universe. At one time, science had been Gabriel’s answer to everything.” While Gabriel now sees that science is often tied to corporate interests and corporate mistakes, Dorian continues to spread other dangerous stories that justify environmental destruction: “everything we do, all of us … is in pursuit of profit.”

The pursuit of profit resulted in the use of GreenSweep herbicide to clear the land for oil pipelines. It had, however, leaked into the water and killed living beings, including humans. Survivors from the nearby reserve had been evacuated and vacationers avoided the adjacent tourist town. Despite the devastation, King points to life-affirming stories based on community, cooperation and resilience as a viable route forward for his characters. King retells a creation story, which he once championed in The Truth About Stories, this time with the help of Nicholas, Gabriel and Mara, an artist who has returned home to the reserve. Their humorous and enchanting rendition of “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky” exemplifies King at his finest. It also reminds Gabriel of our responsibility toward others: “He thought about the woman who fell from the sky, how it would have been to have seen her streaking through the heavens like a falling star, plunging towards earth. And how different the outcome might have been if the birds hadn’t caught her.”

King’s novel is hopeful that damaged environments, like damaged communities, will rebound and thrive. But if King’s is a story of hope, it is one that acknowledges a violent colonial past and a precarious future. Even as Mara, Gabriel and others are in the process of recovering from the GreenSweep disaster, Dorian’s company is responsible for, and yet unmoved by, another disaster: “Dorian watched the spectacle. … He found himself drifting along with the effluence as it was flushed out of the holding ponds, and finding an unexpected peace in the chaos of the moment. Nothing to be done about the spills. … It would happen again.”

While King’s novel is overtly political, perhaps even moral, it is no less memorable because of this. In fact, the novel’s strength lies in its assessment of topical and controversial issues. The novel explores how dominant and ecologically destructive stories are created and maintained by individuals, businesses and the media. Although King is highly critical, he is equally forgiving. He is generous to his cast, ensuring each individual is well-rounded and complex, whether the character is a CEO, a developmentally disabled child, a mourning woman or a dog. King’s novel is a timely and necessary story of hope and resilience in the face of perpetual disaster, fulfilling Nicholas’s proclamation that “it’s well and proper to write what must be seen and to speak what must be heard.” 

The Back of the Turtle, Thomas King, Toronto: HarperCollins, 2014, 518 pages. 

Reviewer Information

Alec Follett is an enthusiastic birdwatcher whose PhD research, at uGuelph, explores the crossroads of environmental knowledge and environmental justice in Ontarian literature.

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