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Free «Symbolism in “Truth and Bright Water” Novel by Thomas King» Essay Sample


“Truth and Bright Water” is a Canadian novel written by Thomas King. It is a coming of age type of novel which focuses on the life a 15-year-old boy, Tecumseh, who is both the protagonist and the narrator in the novel. In this novel, Thomas King brings the abilities that he are so well-known of to the fore and exquisitely combines the lyrical and comic poignancy to make it a best seller. This novel is indeed laden with many literal concepts that are all employed in style and precision for the satisfaction and delivery of the message which he accomplishes with meticulous ease. The purpose of this paper is to look at how King employs the literal concept of symbolism in his book. There are numerous instances of symbolism as King tells the story in “Truth and Bright Water”.


Symbolism is the use of certain objects, images, and other items to represent certain concepts and people or pass messages to the readers in a manner that provokes their thinking and imagination. The use of symbolism in literature makes for interesting and active reading through the engagement of the mind. Thomas King has employed symbolism in “Truth and Bright Water” in almost every aspect of the novel in a manner that is not easily detectable.



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Firstly, the title of the novel, “Truth and Bright Water”, draws several symbolic instances that can be drawn from the novel. “Truth and Bright Water” could be interpreted to mean “Truth or Consequences” which refers to the television game. Truth or consequences also refers to a town in New Mexico. This, therefore, portends a warning to the characters in the novel to tell the truth or suffer the consequences. This is shown through the story of Alum, who is a runner, a wounded warrior, and “the boy with the bad eye” (Thomas  102). Alum is compared to the great Geronimo, who was trained to be a great runner and a fearless warrior. He also had a bad eye which he had suffered as a result of a gunshot wound. Alum suffers the consequences of his silence as he fails to tell the truth about his father’s abusive behavior. He puts in a lot of effort in order to compete in Bright Water Indian Days independence celebration. He fails to participate in the race as a result of wounds got through the abuse of his father. It is this silence that kills him as he keeps quiet about a grave issue that he should tell the truth about.

There is also an element of division in the title as it represents two areas that are geographically separated by a river between them. The novel depicts life in the Bright Water Reservation which is next to the small town of Truth on the other side of the river. Bright Water is on the Canadian while Truth is on the American side. The symbolism of this division shows a natural and political division that exists between the two regions. The natural divide is particularly more prominent in the novel. This is shown by the first sentence of the novel which is ‘The river begins in ice’. The name of this river is the ‘Shield’; this name is important as it highlights another aspect of symbolism. However, the significance of the river and not its name is to separate the fictional Bright Water, which is a Canadian Indian Reservation, and Truth, the U.S American railroad town. The separation of the two communities is further completed by a half-done bridge connecting the two sides(Stephanie, 2000). The bridge across the Shield river is therefore to be blamed for the economic depression that the region has suffered. The river is symbolically portrayed as a natural division between the two nationally and ethically different, hierarchically organized, and antagonistic communities by the residents when they tell each other to “keep your kids on your side of the river”. This highlights the division that existed between the two communities as it is reinforced by the natural river and the half-completed bridge which similarly symbolized the relations between the communities.

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The second aspect of symbolism is exhibited in the name given to the narrator, Tecumseh. This name means so much in the aspect of the Indian history, and his role in the novel is to reflect the role of the bearer of that name in the ancient history. In the Indian history, Tecumseh was a Shawnee chief and a warrior. He is regarded as the one who attempted, even though unsuccessfully, to unite all the tribes of Mississippi valley into one Indian nation. He was killed in the battle of Thames; this killing paved the way for the evolution of the American doctrine of removing Indians to “Indian Territory” south west of Mississippi. The name is, therefore, symbolically used to alert the reader into the rich history of the Indian native traditions. This enables King to draw on specific tribal histories as well as a broader context by interfusing several cultural traditions, colonial conflicts, and historical tragedies. The narrator is shown to live up to his name as a leader when he worries about so many problems that a normal fifteen-year-old would not worry about (MacDonald 35). He is troubled by the situation between his parents who live apart, and he desperately wishes they would reconcile their differences. He is also concerned by the issues of racial identity which are boiling below the surface, and he is similarly troubled by the problems of Lum, his cousin and a close friend, whose volatility is slowly transforming into something more lethal and dangerous. Consequently, the name is chosen not only to highlight his leadership role in trying to unite the two communities but also to tell of the traditional heritage of the native Indians.

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King also symbolically uses the figure of Monroe Swimmer to achieve the goal of telling the rich history of the natives. Monroe Swimmer is celebrated as one of the greatest artists in the region who returns to the town of Truth and Bright Water after a successful stay in Toronto. His return is used to establish a link between the narrator’s family story and the Indian history. Through Swimmer, King is able to reveal political, religious, and aesthetic problems that the colonial legacy left for the Native communities. He is a link to the family of the narrator as he turns out to be central to the secret that Tecumseh’s mother and sister, Cassie, share. He thus serves the purpose of reserving the painful Indian history of Cherokee removal from their homeland (Neil 2005). He transforms Indians from the subjects of removal into agents of their own re-creation.

Another aspect of symbolism that King employs in the novel is the aspect of disappearing and reappearing. Throughout the novel, so many things or features are shown to disappear and reappear, some without reappearing. As the story begins, both the narrator and Alum are bewildered by a mysterious figure that appears and then vanishes with “no sound, no flashing ripples on the water, nothing to mark her fall”. This then sets the stage for many incidences of vanishing and reappearing. People, vehicles, animals, and other figures all vanish and then show up again after sometime or do not show up at all. The first thing that disappears is the church which reappears in the huge bison herds that are erected by Monroe Swimmer upon his return into the town. Swimmer is also another example of a person who reappears after having vanished for a long period. However, in order to place the issue of disappearing and reappearing into the proper context, it must be discussed in view of Lum. Lum perfectly emphasizes on the act of disappearing and reappearing throughout the novel. As he prepares for the Indian independence competition, he runs in the area observed by the narrator and disappears into the distance: “ I climb to the top of the fence to see if I can spot him, but he’s already dropped down the far side of the slope and disappeared into the landscape” (Thomas 166-167). The narrator further creates uncertainty on whether Lum will return or not as there is no telling how far he might run or if he will remember to come back home.

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This aspect of loss is highlighted by the death of Lum’s mother which he struggles with “sometimes Lum remembers that his mother is dead, and sometimes he forgets” (Thomas 15). There is a point when he accepts the fact that his mother died and is never coming back, but then there are moments when he says that she is back. As he struggles with the loss of his mother, the author shows how it is difficult to accept the loss of a loved one. King similarly uses Lum to show how appearances can fool many people. Lum appears to be a warrior and a happy determined person; however, far from it, he is abused by his father; it is this abuse that makes him not participate in the competition. The use of disappearing and appearing is meant to show the evolution of a society through different phases and how that society handles the problems it faces (Joan 125).

In conclusion, King has employed symbolism in order to deliver his message in a manner that is precise for the readers. He continually appreciates the native history of the communities in the two towns while displaying their differences. It is the style of delivery that makes “Truth and Bright Water” a truly magnificent novel.


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