Helen's Quilt as Autobiographical, Social, and Political Text in Thomas King's Truth and Bright Water

Article excerpt

Helen's quilt in Thomas King's novel Truth and Bright Water tells the story of her personal metamorphosis and, as such, can be viewed as an autobiographical, social, and political text. This essay illustrates how, through quiltmaking, Helen finds discrete parts of herself and emerges from erasure as an indigenous woman.

Each time a Native woman seeks, unearths, brings forth and defends her people's history, political identity, and cultural teachings, she finds increasingly discrete parts of herself.--Ines Herndndez-Avila

In Quilts as Text(iles): The Semiotics of Quilting, Judy Elsley writes that "a quilt is a text. It speaks its maker's desires and beliefs, hopes, and fears, sometimes in a language any reader can understand, but often in an obscure language available only to the initiated. Quilts and texts are inseparable" (1). In his novel Truth and Bright Water, Thomas King presents the quiltmaker Helen, who creates an extraordinary patchwork quilt that goes through transformations reflecting certain stages of her life. The quilt, which is only imagined by the reader, becomes a text within the text that incorporates its own unique rhetoric. As a document that tells the story of Helen's personal metamorphosis while she deals with various vicissitudes in her life, the quilt can be viewed as an autobiographical, social, and political text. This essay illustrates how Helen, in exploring and expressing these various aspects of her background through quiltmaking, eventually finds discrete parts of herself and emerges from erasure as a Native woman.

Set against the backdrop of the fictional places of Truth in Montana and the Bright Water Reserve in Alberta, which are separated by a river, Thomas King (a mixedblood of Cherokee and Greek heritage) presents the coming-of-age tale of Tecumseh (a Blackfoot) and his cousin Lum. Tecumseh's mother Helen and her quilt are interwoven into the narrative in such a way that her quiltmaking becomes a salient aspect of the novel. Early in the text, while conversing with Tecumseh, Helen removes her quilt from a basket to work on it. With the patchwork project spread out on her lap, she grabs a tin box that contains miscellaneous items, such as "paperclips, coloured stones, pieces of fur, candles, buttons, fish bones, sticks, glass, and bits of dry stuff that look as if they should have been thrown out long ago" (17). As she continues to speak with Tecumseh, she sews a stone and some netting onto the quilt. We soon learn that Helen is not only a quiltmaker, but that her quilt is unusual and includes items not traditionally incorporated in a patchwork textile. Through words, King creates the concept of a material, visual object, a quilt, which in turn can be read as a text with a type of rhetoric that not only expresses Helen's autobiography but includes a social and political message as well.

The Blackfoot Indians once occupied an extensive area ranging from the Missouri River in Montana to as far north as the Battle River in Alberta. L. James Dempsey writes that there are four main tribes in the nation, including: "the Blackfoot proper, or Siksika (today called the Siksika First Nation); the Blood tribe, or Kainai (today the Kainaiwa First Nation); and the Piegans, or Pikuni, who are divided into two tribes: the North Piegan, or Aputohsi-Pikuni (Piikani First Nation), and the South Piegan, or Amiskapi-Pikuni (Blackfeet Indians of Montana)" (5). He explains that altogether the tribes were known "in Blackfoot as Saukitapix, or Prairie People, or as Nitsitapix, Real People" (5). Today they live in both the United States and Canada, with some members living on a reservation in Browning, Montana, and others residing in the Siksika, Kainai, and Piegan reservations in Alberta. They are also more broadly Algonquin and are one of the tribes associated with Plains Indians, along with such groups as the Assiniboines, Cheyennes, Crees, Crows, Gros Ventres, Kiowas, and Shoshones. …