Storytelling is one of the most important themes of the novel, and a key way in which King incorporates an Aboriginal perspective. The narrator, Coyote, and the four elders tell overlapping and interlocked stories. They use these stories to explain the origins of the world, showing that stories can be about sharing knowledge and understanding. Importantly, stories are presented as capable of changing and being told in different ways and from different perspectives. In this way, King uses the theme of storytelling to contrast with a European paradigm of a single dominant narrative that must be accepted by everyone. Because the stories are told out loud rather than written down, they also remain flexible and fluid.
Marriage is a theme that is not presented positively in the novel. Both Latisha and Alberta have experienced unhappy marriages, and this has made them suspicious of men. Alberta is also suspicious because of the unhappy relationship she observed between her parents. Various other female characters also regard marriage skeptically as well, and think it is likely to be a mistake. Interestingly, it is the male characters who often have more positive views of marriage. This may be because traditional expectations around marriage tend to benefit the male partner at the expense of the woman. The skeptical perspective towards marriage is one example of the novel's wider interest in critiquing power dynamics that privilege one party over another.
Repetition occurs in the novel when characters tell versions of the same story multiple times or when events reoccur. This repetition is important partly because it can make a reader feel unsettled and confused by a non-traditional model of storytelling. As a result, readers have to think about what they assume to be the "right" way of telling a story, and where these assumptions come from. Repetition is also an important theme in the novel because it shows that the same events can appear very differently depending on who is recounting them, which is important in order to understand how Aboriginal perspectives are often erased from history. Finally, repetition offers a way of understanding time as moving in circular rather than linear ways, and this highlights the importance of the past as always being a shaping force and not something that can simple be left behind or erased.
Fertility is an important theme in the novel because it relates to the transmission of traditions, and the possibility of renewal and hope. Alberta's longing for a baby reflects her desire to create and nurture life, and the various female figures in the creation stories are often also associated with fertility and life-giving qualities. At the same time, fertility is presented as a potential burden on female characters. The creation women are repeatedly threatened with sexual violence and their own perspectives on their fertility are not always heeded. While Latisha loves her children dearly, her pregnancies trap her in a relationship with George. Even Alberta finds it challenging to navigate how she might actually go about conceiving a baby.
Movies appear multiple times throughout the novel, coming up in relation to Charlie's father's career as an actor, and also in regards to the Westerns the various characters find themselves watching in the hotel prior to the Sundance ceremony. In particular, the films highlighted in the novel focus on depictions of Aboriginal characters, and the way in which these depictions focus mainly on stereotypes. They tend to offer cliched ideas of what Aboriginals are like and result in the general public having false ideas rather than accurate ones. The limited depiction of Indians in the movies contrasts with how King creates complex and sophisticated characters in his novel.
Religion is a recurring theme in the novel, particularly in the creation stories told by the four Indian elders. These stories combine traditional Aboriginal mythology with Biblical stories such as the creation story from the Book of Genesis or the story of Noah. These versions highlight how the Biblical stories are often sexist, violent, and focused on a very strict set of rules and laws. At the same time, they have been presented as the only available narratives and used to oppress the stories of other traditions. Judeo-Christian religions are therefore presented skeptically and critically in the novel.
History is a dominant theme in the novel in that time does not unfold within believable scales. The elders, for example, seem to be hundreds of years old since their escapes date back far beyond a standard human lifespan. The creation stories observed by the narrator and Coyote blur together episodes and figures from many different times in history, suggesting that past and present are always attached to one another. Individual characters are also deeply affected by their personal histories, and their perspectives and feelings are shaped by the events that took place in their pasts.
Green Grass, Running Water Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Green Grass, Running Water is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.