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Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Book Review: Medicine Walk

Author: Richard Wagamese
Publication: McClelland & Stewart, 2014
Genre: Literary Fiction, Native Fiction

First Lines:

He walked the old mare out of the pen and led her to the gate that opened out into the field. There was a frost from the night before, and they left tracks behind them. He looped the rope around the middle rail of the fence and turned to walk back to the barn for the blanket and saddle. The tracks looked like inkblots in the seeping melt, and he stood for a moment and tried to imagine the scenes they held.

Goodreads Description:

Franklin Starlight is called to visit his father, Eldon. He's sixteen years old and has had the most fleeting of relationships with the man. The rare moments they've shared haunt and trouble Frank, but he answers the call, a son's duty to a father. He finds Eldon decimated after years of drinking, dying of liver failure in a small town flophouse. Eldon asks his son to take him into the mountains, so he may be buried in the traditional Ojibway manner.    

What ensues is a journey through the rugged and beautiful backcountry, and a journey into the past, as the two men push forward to Eldon's end. From a poverty-stricken childhood, to the Korean War, and later the derelict houses of mill towns, Eldon relates both the desolate moments of his life and a time of redemption and love and in doing so offers Frank a history he has never known, the father he has never had, and a connection to himself he never expected.   

A novel about love, friendship, courage, and the idea that the land has within it powers of healing, Medicine Walk reveals the ultimate goodness of its characters and offers a deeply moving and redemptive conclusion. Wagamese's writing soars and his insight and compassion are matched by his gift of communicating these to the reader.

My Review:

This was our March book club selection. We’d read Thomas King’s The Inconvenient Indian (non-fiction) last year, and interest in Native themes had been stirred. Medicine Walk proved a moving account that anyone – First Nations or otherwise – could relate to, dealing as it does with the themes of family relationships, betrayal, loss and pain. Eldon’s alcoholism as a way of dealing with emotions such as fear, hurt and disappointment is a method of self-medicating not unique to the aboriginal population.

We were all impressed with Franklin’s maturity and the nurturing care he offers the father who allowed another man to raise him. Franklin’s character and ability to forgive are largely due to the influence of that man, an old farmer who seeks to teach the ‘kid’ the Indian ways that are not part of his own heritage. 

Wagamese creates a great deal of sympathy for Franklin’s father as the reader learns the story of his life. While Eldon has opportunities to be a hero (his mother’s abusive boyfriend, his time in the Korean War, his battle with alcohol, etc.), he never really succeeds, though at the end he finds the courage to share his story (with all its faults and failures) with Franklin. Eldon doesn’t merit being buried in the warrior way, but within the limitations of his character, he is a kind of survivor.

The author has a beautiful way with words and packages them to create images and pictures that stay with the reader a long time after the book is set down. He also evokes an emotional response in the reader. As much as she might like to condemn Eldon for his inability to rise to the occasion or fault him for his failure to conquer the addiction of alcohol, she can’t help but feel for Eldon’s suffering, both on the medicine walk and throughout the tragedies of his experience.

Well worth reading, though the gentle reader is duly warned that the book is not short on the use of profanity.

My Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

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