Thomas King, The Back of the Turtle


This my third book by this author that I discovered more than 20 years ago when I was a student at Duke University and I had the chance to participate in a Canadian Literature reading group at the Center for Canadian Studies. The group was run by professor from the English department call Ted Davidson. He usually picked the books, sometimes new books that had to be ordered from Canada, sometimes older works that were easy to find in paperbacks. Certainly, Professor Davidson has contributed to shaping my tastes in reading.

So I had the joy of discovering Green Grass, Running Water in those days. I later stumbled upon a second-hand copy of Medicine River.

This new book came out this year and I thought I should give it a read and see if I still enjoyed Thomas King. This has indeed been an interesting read. Similarly to the other two books, it features some Canadian First Nations characters in contemporary settings encountering some challenges, some related to defining or maintaining their identity, some related to the trials and tribulations of modern life, like everyone else. All three books contain certain elements of magic and fantasy (a Canadian version of magical realism?) or at least of seriously twisted perception of reality.

And suddenly the sea was alive with people. He caught a young boy by the hair and dragged him to the rocks. Then a young girl and an old woman. Another wave and an old man. Two young men. All naked and cold. Their mouths filled with water. Their eyes wild with life.

Patiently, his arms and back in agony, he caught each one in turn, until there were a dozen souls clinging to each other, as the surf thundered around them.

And then for no reason other than exhaustion and exhilaration, he began to sing again. Not the memorial song. A grass dance this time. A fierce song. A song for warriors. For now he knew these people. There were the sea people. The first people. The ones who had come from the ocean when the world was new. The long black hair. The fierce eyes. They had heard his song, and they had come to be with him at his dying.

No, Gabriel is not having a nightmare or hallucinations, and these people were not sea people. There is a much more commonsensical explanation.

As far as plot is concerned, we meet a variety of characters and slowly finding how and when their lives have intersected and what are the various consequences of that. Without giving away what holds everything together, here are some of the important characters and what they are up to:

Gabriel Quinn: Native man from Lethbridge, grew up in Minneapolis after his father left his mother (and sister), genius, is a research scientist for a large corporation called Domidion, contributed to developing a superbacterium dubbed Greensweep that kills all life, did not show up for work one day and is considered to have disappeared.

Dorian Asher: CEO of Domidion, is suffering from some illness but does not really want to find out what, makes ethically questionable business decisions, his corporation seems to be responsible for some pretty serious environmental disasters. A despicable one-sided caricature of the corporate bad buy, he seems to be quite alone in the world and never seem to speak to anyone at work except for his personal assistant and the woman from Public Relations. Doesn’t this corporation have an executive team, a board, other people that participate in decision making?

Mara: Young Native woman from the West Coast, meets Gabriel who is looking for his mother and sister, the sister was one of her best friends growing up, a survivor of a disaster who killed most inhabitant for of the Indian Reservation where she grew up.

Nicholas Crisp: Colourful local man, speaks in archaic English, appears to be eccentric, but seems to know many things that we only slowly discover, we don’t what he does for a living, or what he does at all, besides soaking in the pools of a local hot spring.

Sonny: Possibly autistic son of local motel owner who likes to pick up salvage on the beach, it is unclear whether the father is still alive, whether the motel is operating, and whether anybody is actually taking care of Sonny, but we know that he is intent on building a tower on the beach and lighting a fire to bring back people and the turtles that disappeared after an environmental disaster, and that he regularly finds food to eat in an old vending machine (the strangest of the book’s mysteries).

Here is one thing Crisp says about Sonny (he is talking to a dog called Soldier, aka Master Dog):

“The boy has scant talent for melodic renderings,” Crisp told Soldier, “but he has a honeyed heart, and on that account we needs put up with the excruciations.”

That has to bring a smile to your face!

In the end, the outcomes from the main characters are rather inconclusive. Can Gabriel find redemption and come to terms with the terrible consequences of this scientific work? Can Mara deal with the grief for her lost family and her guilt for having run away? Will Dorian have a heart someday?

I also have Thomas King’s 2012 work on non-fiction, The Inconvenient Indian. We’ll just have to see when that surfaces to the top of the EGTBR pile.


King, Thomas. The Back of The Turtle. Harper Collins, 2014.

King, Thomas. Green Grass, Running Water. Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1993.

King, Thomas. Medicine River. Viking, Markham, ON, 1989.



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