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The Back of the Turtle Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Back of the Turtle by Thomas King.
The Back of the Turtle is the first novel by Canadian-American author Thomas King in fifteen years. The book was originally published by HarperCollins in 2014, and was widely acclaimed in the same vein as his other notable books that have now become Canadian classics, such as The Inconvenient Indian and Green Grass Running Water.
In his latest venture, the novel’s protagonist, Gabriel Quinn, returns to the reserve where his mother grew up, Smoke River, on the coast of British Columbia. Gabriel is part of the First Nations community of Lethbridge, Alberta. After completing his degree at Stanford, Gabriel became a renowned scientist who works for the biotech company Domidon. As their lead scientist, he created “GreenSweep,” which has inadvertently wreaked havoc on the land of Gabriel’s people and destroyed the community of Smoke River.
Upon his return, he finds that the entire reserve is deserted after an environmental disaster rendered the place inhospitable. The disaster killed many people, including Gabriel’s family and the wildlife that once lived off the land. Gabriel feels an overwhelming sense of guilt for the role he has played in the crisis. His heart is so heavy that he decides he is better off dead, making a plan to drown himself in the sea. Gabriel readies himself to walk into the sea at low tide while playing his drum, waiting for the ocean to rise up around him and swallow him up.
However, as Gabriel is acting out his plan, a hand reaches out from the water and grasps desperately in his direction. Gabriel discovers that the hand belongs to a little girl who is drowning. Gabriel rescues her and gets her out of the water, wrapping his jacket around her for warmth. This incident causes Gabriel to abandon his plan to kill himself, feeling that maybe he can do some good in this world after all.
Gabriel continues to walk along the shore of Samaritan Bay, fully naked. He notes that without the First Nations people who once lived there, it is a strange place. Another First Nations person Sonny heads to the beach in search of his own reason to go on in life. He sees that there are no other people or wildlife, except for Gabriel, who is soon joined by Mara Reid. Mara used to live on the Smoke River reserve, alongside Gabriel’s family and was best friends with Gabriel’s sister, Lilly.
She asks Gabriel what he is doing on the beach all by himself, and he tells her that he has been trying to kill himself. She muses that he is not very good at it. Both Mara and Sonny become interweaved in Gabriel’s life as the story goes on, as does Soldier, the dog, and Sonny’s brother, Crisp. The novel also contains multiple stories from First Nations mythology, which King ties into the plot.
One of the most important stories central to the book is “The Woman Who Fell from the Sky.” It is a First Nations creation story, which Mara and Crisp tell together while soaking in the hot springs. Crisp describes the narrative as being in dialogue with the land, a central characteristic of life for the First Nations people. In this way, it is more about the relationship of people with the land than some kind of divinity.
In the story, the woman is digging for tubers under the roots of an old tree. Suddenly, she loses her balance and falls, transporting her out of her world and into a world that consists of only water. When she finally comes to a stop, her fall is broken by water birds. In this world, there is no land, only water, so the woman must remain on the back of a turtle. The woman is pregnant, and while she is on the turtle’s back, she gives birth to twins, one who is right-handed, and the other left-handed. The left-handed twin, Gabriel, is believed to be evil. It is thought that Gabriel must learn to become right-handed, and at the same time, right his wrongs in the world.
The woman challenges all the creatures of this new world to a diving contest, stating that the first one to reach the bottom and resurface with a ball of mud as evidence will be declared the winner. All of the animals are excited to participate. In the end, the Muskrat first returns to the surface with the mud, placing it on the turtle’s back.
At the end of the novel, it is finally revealed that Gabriel is the one responsible for killing his own family and Mara’s as well. Overcome with grief at his confession, Mara tells him that he should drown himself. However, Gabriel sees an opportunity in Mara. He realizes that he can do what he can for this woman whom he loves, and that salvation comes from saving others rather than himself.