A fa­ther’s dif­fi­cult path to re­demp­tion

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Ron Kir­byson

WHILE Medicine Walk is no In­dian Horse, the bril­liant 2012 novel from Richard Wagamese, it is a dis­tinc­tive, pow­er­fully writ­ten work nev­er­the­less. From Kam­loops, B.C., Wagamese continues to show a talent for sto­ry­telling. In fact, many of the char­ac­ters in the novel are sto­ry­tellers them­selves. These com­pelling char­ac­ters, as well as the sto­ries they tell, are some of Medicine Walk’s more strik­ing achieve­ments. The novel has a slow start, with “the old man” fig­ur­ing promi­nently. His lack of a name at the out­set forces the reader into some ini­tial head­scratch­ing. Pro­tag­o­nist Franklin Starlight, the old man’s adopted child, proves to be an in­ter­est­ing fo­cus at var­i­ous ages, es­pe­cially be­cause of his stress­ful re­la­tion­ship with El­don Starlight, his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. El­don iden­ti­fies him­self as “In­dian,” claim­ing to be Ojib­way. He also claims to be a war­rior, but has a hard time im­press­ing on his son that he’s wor­thy of a war­rior’s burial.

It’s not sur­pris­ing that Franklin strug­gles to ad­mire El­don. To be­gin with, it wasn’t un­til he was seven years old that he learned El­don, not “the old man,” was his bi­o­log­i­cal fa­ther. Years of bro­ken prom­ises then min­i­mized the pos­si­bil­ity of a pos­i­tive fa­ther-son re­la­tion­ship. Fur­ther­more, Franklin’s im­pres­sions of his fa­ther are par­tially formed from watch­ing El­don (and many other char­ac­ters) fre­quently chugalug­ging straight whiskey. El­don keeps some pretty rough com­pany, in­clud­ing the reg­u­lars who drink in Char­lie’s hang­out. While not abo­rig­i­nal, the old man is the one who suc­cess­fully teaches Franklin many na­tive tra­di­tions and prac­tices, in­clud­ing the track­ing and hunt­ing of moose, elk, coy­otes and black bear. In the con­text of this book, a “medicine walk” ap­pears to take the form of a jour­ney — ac­com­pa­ny­ing one who is ap­proach­ing death to his fi­nal rest­ing place. Dur­ing Franklin’s walk with El­don, the boy’s em­pa­thy for his fa­ther in­creases. This is es­pe­cially true as he learns the tragic cir­cum­stances of his fa­ther’s life, in­clud­ing his par­tic­i­pa­tion in the Korean War, as well as the hard­ships of Angie, his mother, who died giv­ing birth to Franklin. Wagamese’s de­pic­tion of the fight­ing in the war is par­tic­u­larly graphic. Quite dra­matic in its own right is the pro­found story of El­don and Jimmy Weaseltail, his only friend. One of the most strik­ing fea­tures of Medicine Walk is the de­scrip­tion of an­i­mal life and the mag­nif­i­cent Bri­tish Columbia in­te­rior. Read­ers may find some ini­tial dif­fi­culty with the lan­guage of the book, no­tably the ap­par­ently in­dis­crim­i­nate use of pro­nouns. Too of­ten a char­ac­ter is re­ferred to as “he” with­out clear iden­ti­fi­ca­tion of the per­son in­volved; as such, con­ver­sa­tions are some­times rather con­fus­ing. Still, Medicine Walk is a mov­ing read, full of un­for­get­table char­ac­ters and sce­nar­ios. The con­clu­sion of the medicine walk, and the boy’s burial of his fa­ther, are emo­tion­ally grip­ping. Ron Kir­byson is a Win­nipeg writer who hopes to con­tinue learn­ing about abo­rig­i­nal cul­ture.

Medicine Walk

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