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Living by the Stories We Believe

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Thomas King, The Truth About Stories: A Native Narrative.
University of Minnesota (2003).

Reviewed by Anne Dalke, Bryn Mawr College Department of English.


I came to Thomas King's collection of five native narratives fresh from a reading of Nassim Taleb's new book about the "narrative fallacy," the dangers of storytelling. In many ways the burden of King's book is the same as Taleb's: "you have to be careful with the stories you tell. And you have to watch out for the stories that you are told."

The particular emphasis of this collection is on the creation, preservation and re-creation of Native American culture, and it includes a high regard for langauge as the central instrument of that creation. The book is a thin one, and none of the words in it are thrown away. In five chapters and an afterword, King tells six powerful stories. Two of them are old legends: a story about creation, and another one about Coyote and the ducks. Three of them are historical: one about Wil Rodgers, one about an "exhibit Indian," Ishi, and one about the Indian schools. The last one is personal: it is an excruciating story about King's own failure to be a good friend.

There's lots of good (I mean bad) history included here, lots of awful, and awfully instructive, accounts of how "the Indian problem" was handled in this country in the past. Each story King tells begins with the identical preface, the story about it being "turtles all the way down." And each ends with the same caution: "Take it. It's yours. Do with it what you will...But don't say in the years to come that you would have lived your life differently if only you had heard this story. You've heard it now."

The collection is grounded in a belief--and it tells this story convincingly, achingly, heartbreakingly--that in fiction, as in life, whether we live or die "depends on which story we believe."


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