The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King

For the past several years I have been participating in the 50 Book Pledge that is sponsored by Savvy Reader via HarperCollins Canada. It is a type of social media site where you pledge to read for the year and it allows you to keep track of what you have read or are reading or wish to read. You can earn badges, follow people, and enter book contests. What I like best about it is that they put out suggestions for a new book each month. It has made me reach outside my comfort zone of genres and read books and authors that I might not otherwise have chosen to read.

Here is my latest read; The Back of the Turtle – Thomas King.

This is not a new book. HarperCollins published this in 2014. It is undoubtedly a thick tome, 518 pages, of which I loved every word, but when I first picked it up at the library I was like, holy crap! I don’t have time for this!

It is the story of a tortured scientist, Gabriel Quinn, a soulless CEO, Dorian Asher, who must have worked for Monsanto at some point, a grieving First Nations woman Mara, a strangely interesting character Nicolas Crisp (who I deemed the Medicine Man in this story) and his nephew Sonny, who is intellectually challenged. What a strange cast of characters to throw into a book!

The book begins with Gabriel (who has left Toronto to go to British Columbia as we learn later) attempting suicide on a fictional beach – Samaritan Bay – that was once a tourist destination as the beach was the nesting place for sea turtles. His plan is thwarted by, “A hand thrust out of the water, then an arm, fragile, a slender branch caught in a flood. And then a pool of black hair, floating around a child’s face.” (7) He ends up saving a family caught in the sea. This sets the stage for Gabriel (notice the angelic name) to go through a series of repentant-like events so he – and maybe others – can forgive his past – and he has much to forgive himself for. He is the scientist who invents GreenSweep, a chemical agent that causes massive ecological destruction (ie: think: Agent Orange). Now like the Angel Gabriel he must brandish his flaming sword and right his wrongs. But King did not really go all out like that with ‘this Gabriel’. I just couldn’t resist myself!

The story then shifts to Dorian Asher, CEO of Domindion a agribusiness company that makes toxic substances and is the epitome of corporate greed (think: Monsanto). King has him enter the story: “…relaxed in the quiet comfort of the limousine and watch[ing] the world glide by…” (11). This is what Dorian does; watch the world from behind glass and subterranean offices. He has no conscience and his soullessness provides for some very dry humour. I actually liked this villain and who the heck is supposed to like the villain! I just loved it when everything is going to hell in a hand basket for his company & he is out buying expensive watches…his attitude on the tailing pond spill into the Athabasca…and his media solution to this disaster…I kept wondering what the hell he would come up with next! Oh and don’t forget about Winter, his personal assistant, who is like some kind of androgynous female robot!

Into the story walks Mara, a First Nations woman who left her reserve to pursue an art career in Toronto and whose family and reserve is destroyed by Gabriel’s GreenSweep. She decides to try to deal with her soul shattering grief by painting portraits of the people from her reserve who lost their lives from the ‘Big Ruin’. I love this character who is brash, mouthy and pointedly blunt, providing humour to the story.

The story moves forwards and backwards in time with Nicolas Crisp appearing at moments to prophetsize:

         “For the first time in a very long while, Crisp felt alive. They were all here now. Mara, Soldier, and this Gabriel.

So, it had begun.

At last, it had begun.” (85)

All brought together by Sonny’s hammer, “Wham, wham. Hammer, hammer.”

This is an environmental story pointing out the differences in view points between First Nations and Non-Native views. It is of corporate greed and hope for a better planet, if we take time to pay attention to our actions. King didn’t preach or proselytize nor was he in your face. It was subtle, humourous and well, King-ly.

As in King’s Massey Lecture: The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative, “You can’t say you didn’t know, you just [read] it.” (2003)