One Good Story

by Tom King,
ISBN: 0002240009

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Comical and Economical
by Kenneth Radu

THOMAS KING possesses an acute ear for dialogue and the English-language speech rhythms of his Native characters. In a collection that includes several narratives built upon oral storytelling techniques, the convincing use of dialect and specific vernacular is a major achievement.

The title story in One Good Story, That One, for example, deserves several readings, preferably aloud, to hear King's flawless use of voice and, equally important, to understand the essentially circular or non-linear structure of the telling. Chronology also follows a pattern peculiar to Native art. The storyteller here does not move in a straight line but starts, shifts, slides off at a tangent, and incorporates anachronistic details as he recounts a parodic version of the Garden of Eden story.

Recited for the benefit of white cultural anthropologists, who remain shadowy stickfigures, "One Good Story, That One" may well be pulling their and the reader's leg. "Those ones like old stories, says my friend, maybe how the world was put together. Good Indian story like that, Napiao say."

"Magpies" is a wonderfully funny and affecting story about a Native woman called Granny who knows she is going to die of a bad leg very soon. Granny's sense of timing and her diagnosis may not be entirety accurate, but her wish to have her body handled in the traditional manner of her people, properly wrapped and placed among the branches of a cottonwood tree, is absolute. With an instinctive horror of hospitals and of the grave, a hole in the ground where "you put stew bones. Where you put old things that are broke," Granny makes Ambrose promise to dispose of her body according to Native customs. He's up against her daughter, Wilma, who insists on burial according to the rites of the Catholic Church, as well as the RCMP and even his own reputation for always "thinking about things to do" that never quite get done.

Also related by a Native storyteller, "Magpies" (the birds enjoy dining on eyes) is an excellent example of King's narrative control, but it also satirically dramatizes fundamental spiritual differences between Native and white society.

White society's inability or refusal to see the world through Native perspectives and to acknowledge Native customs and beliefs is demonstrated comically and economically in "Borders." Here a Native woman wishes to cross the Canadian-American border to visit her daughter in Salt Lake City. Asked to identify her nationality by border officials, she replies Blackfoot, and is thereby refused entry, becoming temporarily caught in white man's bureaucracy and insensitivity.

There are weaker stories in the collection. In "Totem," to name one, a noisy totem pole inexplicably appears in a museum, much to the curator's annoyance, and when cut down, grows back. Despite the allegorical implications, however, the story doesn't move much beyond its initial premise.

Other stories involve a mythological trickster figure called Coyote, and all of them are marked by King's distinctive tone of voice. Perhaps the best story of all is "A Seat in the Garden," a sharp and hilarious parody of the movie Field of Dreams, rendered from a Native point of view and welt worth the price of admission. Despite a tendency to stereotype non-Natives as uncomprehending and officious, and despite a couple of narratives that are more sketchy than complete, One Good Story, That One is an engaging and worthwhile collection.


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