In spite of everything that divides humanity’s cultures, one consistent through line is the creation story. Whether it is one of science on a scale of billions of years, or one of fantastical characters that speak in the language of symbol and lesson, each person has an understanding of how life and the world began that was told to them by their culture. In Thomas King’s The Back of the Turtle, the Anishinaabe and Haudenosaunee peoples’ creation story takes centre stage as the inspiration for the title and as a way to understand Dr. Gabriel Quinn, one of the novel’s principal characters. As a scientist, Gabriel strove for innovation and knowledge under his employer, Domidion, and this pursuit led directly to the environmental devastation of the fictional Samaritan Bay, British Columbia. Gabriel’s past actions and the phenomena that happen around him during The Back of the Turtle can be connected to the figure of the left-handed twin from his culture’s creation story, including the misdeeds that sent him to Samaritan Bay and the near-magical things that appear to happen to him once he arrives.

First, I will introduce the left-handed twin from the story of the woman who fell from the sky to give the comparison to Gabriel some context. Because certain details about the twins vary from version to version, it is important to establish consistency: for this essay, I will refer to both twins as male, and as the left-handed and right-handed twin respectively. Their story begins when they are born of either Sky Woman or her daughter, the latter of whom dies when her left-handed son comes out of her side instead of her birth canal. Upon reaching adulthood, the right-handed twin travels around Turtle Island creating useful animals, rolling hills, and calm streams to fill the landscape with life. Meanwhile, the left-handed twin follows behind his brother and tampers with his plans by creating predators, craggy mountains that cannot be traversed, and rapids to disrupt the flow of the rivers. He also creates bugs that transmit diseases, as well as poisonous plants alongside the medicines that the right-handed twin has grown. The left-handed twin is also sometimes accredited with taking the sun from the sky at night, so that the world is plunged into darkness for half of the day. He is not always evil or malicious, but is absolutely a figure of chaos and destruction who creates counters for what the benevolent right-handed twin desires for the world. When the brothers have their major conflict and the right-handed twin emerges victorious, regardless of the story’s origins, the left-handed twin pays for his misgivings with his life, either by giving it or by having it irreparably changed.

Now, I will connect the left-handed twin’s actions and fate to Gabriel’s in The Back of the Turtle. The most clear and, perhaps, obvious parallel between the two characters is the reason for the story in the first place: GreenSweep. As mentioned, the left-handed twin was the creator of poisons and predators as a way to distort the orderly world that his brother had created. In engineering GreenSweep, the chemical defoliant that washed into Kali Creek and the greater Smoke River and Pacific Ocean, Gabriel played the part of the divine destroyer. His actions led directly to the deaths of hundreds of people, millions of both land and aquatic animals, and the plants and soil in the surrounding area. This valley was once lush and alive; nearby flowed a river that held the physical and spiritual livelihood of the Anishinaabe people who lived on its banks, and further beyond was the town of Samaritan Bay whose beach was a nursery for sea turtles and other abundant sea life. After Gabriel’s creation was released, this community of plants, animals and people was damaged near-irreparably and would still be wheezing for breath for years to come, utterly destroyed by the left hand of a man driven by pride and hunger for knowledge at any cost.

A second parallel between Gabriel and Sky Woman’s left-handed child is the way that the two of them were punished for their misdeeds – in theory, at least. The left-handed twin’s punishment varies from story to story, but his penance for attempting to ruin what his brother had created is generally exile to a dark, underground place, or the death of what his existence once was. Death is what Gabriel wants: he knows what he has done and ultimately spends the novel waiting for the tide and weather conditions to be right for him to receive his just condemnation at the hands of the ocean he destroyed. However, the closest thing to death he gets in the novel is a major change of perspective when he takes the hike down and along the Kali Creek canyon to “see the results of his genius”. Instead of death by water, he experiences death by GreenSweep like the animals on the banks of Kali Creek did as he walks his grim pilgrimage past skeleton after unrecognizable skeleton. Gabriel even gets the burial that his left-handed counterpart got, as the canyon itself seems to swallow him whole and plunge him into darkness with only the sounds of the creek and the mud beneath his feet to guide him.

A third, more storybook parallel is Gabriel’s songs, which appear to have the divine ability to summon people and things to himself. This notably happens with Mara: on the path to Crisp’s birthday party and Gabriel’s final visit to the Apostles, she seems to come out of nowhere to interrupt Gabriel’s songs like the force she is. His song during Crisp’s retelling of Sky Woman’s story also draws Mara closer to him, as she feels comfortable enough to touch his hip beneath the water. This summoning phenomenon truly begins at Gabriel’s first suicide attempt, when his seemingly-failing song conjures fog to disrupt his plan for a sunny sendoff and the crew of the Anguis to force him back to shore. While he and the crew sing on the beach, Gabriel allows himself to believe that it really was his song that summoned them and that “they had come to be with him at his dying” despite his later objections to the power of his voice near the end of the novel. This particular objection comes after Gabriel’s voice joins with Sonny’s hammer on the side of the Anguis to call forth a series of waves with much destructive potential that instead serve the beach and community in pulling the ship back to sea. Crisp maintains faith in the power of the music, pointing out that “the song was sung, the hammer struck, and the wave came”. A scientifically-minded person like Gabriel would chalk this up to coincidence, previously evoking “Post hoc, […] ergo propter hoc” to claim that him singing before a wave crashing does not imply a cause-and-effect relationship, but this novel holds both the practical and fantastical within it and goes between the two easily as the tide rushes out to sea and back in again.

In conclusion, Dr. Gabriel Quinn’s actions throughout The Back of the Turtle align him quite closely to the left-handed figure of destruction from the creation story of his culture. His pursuit of knowledge led him to killing his sister, her son, and many of Mara’s family and community members simply because he could. This mirrors the actions of Sky Woman’s left-handed son; his creations, like the predators and deadly plants he made to spoil his right-handed brothers’ ideals, are also the sources of chaos and catastrophe in their own right. However, despite Gabriel being shown as the bringer of destruction in the past and present, hope remains for the future. Sure, the characters in tales and mythologies are useful in teaching lessons, but to draw equal comparisons between them and three-dimensional people-characters like Gabriel fail to do his development and compelling journey justice. He is not a one-dimensional archetype whose purpose is to fill a role and teach a lesson; by the end of The Back of the Turtle, he is shown to be dynamic, ambidextrous, and willing to make the changes he is capable of in order to repent and reconcile, whatever that looks like for him.