Book review: The Back of the Turtle


Written by a book club member at William Head Institution (BC).

Ahhh, the joy of book clubs and the surprising way they can shape and expand our understanding of texts through lively discussions that invite people to share their ideas, feelings, and personal experiences evoked by their own unique readings. I had such a surprise this past March when the Book Club for Inmates group met to talk about Tom King’s Governor General award-winning novel, The Back of the Turtle (2014).

I give The Back of the Turtle four out of five stars, and thank the folks of the Book Club for sharing their insights and forming our own post-tragedy grassroots community resurgence by the sea.

King’s fable is set in the not-too- distant future where an eco-disaster has ruined the Kali Creek Reserve located near Terrace on the northwest coast of British Columbia. The story follows Dr. Gabriel Quinn, a light complexioned Indigenous scientist employed by the Toronto-based agro-corporation “Domidion,” who returns home to the Kali Creek Reserve to witness the devastating aftermath caused by his designer bacterium known as GreenSweep. While Dr. Quinn despairs over the disappearance of his family and community and flirts with the idea of committing suicide by drowning at sea, he soon discovers a grassroots gathering forming around him, made-up of diverse characters who also call the Kali Creek Reserve and the local town of Samaritan Bay home. Together, these characters teach Gabriel the power of a loving and forgiving community. Three of these magical-realist characters – the little boy named Sonny, his absentee Dad, and the ever-present and festive Nicholas Crisp – remain in my imagination well after our book club discussion, and so what is offered to you here are my musings on this dynamic triad.

A key to understanding Dad and Nicholas Crisp as a spiritual duo is the Indigenous creation story that King’s novel centers around. In The Woman Who Fell from the Sky – as narrated at Crisp’s birthday party by Gabriel, Mara (Gabriel’s sister’s best friend) and Crisp himself as they freely swim in the Beatrice Hot Springs – we learn that the First Woman landed on the back of the turtle and gave birth to twins, a left-handed boy and a right-handed boy (232). The twins go to work on the ball of mud that would soon become the world as we know it today. While the right-handed twin makes the mountains “nice and low with easy slopes” and “smoothes out the valleys, so all are broad and flat,” his left-handed brother “comes along and grabs those mountains with his hands and pulls them into the sky, chips off the sides, makes them craggy and inhospitable” and “stomps on the valleys, so some be deep and narrow and trapped by the terrain” (236). In other words, the right-handed twin is intent on devising a world of “ease and convenience” while the left-handed twin focuses on “complicating the parts, until the world were complete and perfect” (236). As they feast, Crisp then shares with Gabriel and Mara that he is Sonny’s uncle and that Dad is his twin brother “just like in the story” (238). “We weren’t always from the Bay, ye know,” Crisp goes on, “In another time, Dad and me were loose in the world, astride the universe with grand designs, him with his assurances and admonishments, me with my appetites and adventures. We believed we was elemental and everlasting” (239). But, the twins washed ashore after “rough seas” thwarted their work, and they found their home in The Ocean Star Motel where Dad arrogantly took Room 1, Crisp humbly took Room 3, and Sonny stayed in the room in-between (239). After this arrangement failed, Crisp shares how he eventually made his home by the Beatrice Hot Springs. Although we learn that Dad left before the Kali Creek Disaster, Crisp never discloses the circumstances surrounding Dad’s mysterious absence.

My own speculation is that King is up to something more here than simply crafting fresh characters informed by an ancient creation story rooted in the land. With Dad and Nicholas Crisp, I think King is attempting to provide a suggestive socio-political commentary on Canada. Dad, the right-handed twin fixed on creating order, has historically manifested in Canada’s dark legacy of attempting to create civilized order on Turtle Island through government policies like the Residential School systems that abducted over 150,000 Indigenous children from their homes and communities, punished them for speaking their languages, and forcefully indoctrinated them into Christianity. The absence of Dad in King’s story subsequently reflects a loss of faith in a monotheistic, patriarchal God who desires such order at the expense of devaluing and destroying cultural differences. In stark contrast, the adventurous Nicholas Crisp, the left-handed twin committed to “complicating the parts, until the world were complete and perfect,” reflects the re-emerging spirit of generosity and festive hospitality that is beginning to animate Canada in a post-Truth and Reconciliation Commission Era. So while Crisp states it is no longer possible to reconcile with his right-handed twin, he remains dedicated to reconciling the Indigenous people of Kali Creek Reserve and the non-Indigenous locals of the Samaritan Bay Town in order to complete and perfect a resilient community tasked with re-building life on the land after The Ruin.

On this interpretation, the rambunctious boy named Sonny represents our childlike faith that constantly seeks spiritual guidance in the world. At the beginning of the novel, despite strong evidence to the contrary, Sonny still believes his Dad remains in Room 1 of the Ocean Star Motel. It is only after he breaks the door open and sees a cob-webbed room that Sonny fully explores the world outside of the abandoned Motel. Spotting pieces of “salvage” along the beach, from a hand drum to little sea people, Sonny begins to believe that the animals and people will return home. Acting on his newfound faith, he begins building a light tower to help the turtles and the people find their way back. It is during his light tower construction that Sonny reunites with his uncle Nicholas Crisp, and welcomes back the community that gathers in time to climactically push away the Anguis vessel, a symbol of the threat posed by transnational corporations and their slimy trail of environmental contamination.

If King’s novel is a fable for our times, I think one of its central moral messages is that we do not allow our childlike faith to be restricted to an inhospitable space where others are interpreted in black and white terms (Dad’s favourite colours, 379). But instead of allowing our childlike faith to wander aimlessly in a postmodern culture without God, morality, or order, what King invites us to do is trust in the adventurous ethos of the land that is intent on bringing together diverse human and more than human beings to co-sustain peaceful communities, a creative ethos that allows us to see vibrant shades of red (Crisp’s favourite colour) and celebrate the miracle of landing together on the back of the turtle that is our home even after The Ruin created by settler-colonialism. This message should not come as a surprise, for in the words of Nicholas Crisp himself, “Tragedy has a trick of bringing folks together” (226). For brilliantly highlighting this moral message, I give The Back of the Turtle four out of five stars, and thank the folks of the Book Club for sharing their insights and forming our own post-tragedy grassroots community resurgence by the sea.