“In the Ojibway world you go inward in order to express outward. That journey can be harrowing sometimes but it can also be the source of much joy, freedom, and light.”
It is difficult to describe Medicine Walk as a work of fiction as this novel reads like reality. In a gracefully incisive prose Richard Wagamese tells a moving father/son tale. By turns brutally honest and deeply empathetic, Wagamese’s narrative explores the many undercurrents of this complex father/son dynamic. He renders with clarity Franklin Starlight’s tangled feelings—sorrow, rancour, pity—towards his estranged and alcoholic father.
“He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void.”
Set in Canada during the 1950s Medicine Walk follows sixteen year old Franklin, referred throughout the majority of the novel as ‘the kid’, who lives on a farm with his guardian, ‘the old man’. When his father reaches out to him, Franklin finds himself unable to refuse him. Years of drinking have finally taken their toll on Eldon. Knowing his death is imminent, Eldon asks his son to travel alongside him to the mountains, so that he can be buried in the Ojibway warrior way, facing east. Franklin reluctantly embarks on this journey, and as the two make their way into the mountains, old wounds are reopened. He has few memories of his father, and in most of them Eldon appears as a chaotic and disruptive individual, hell-bent on self-destruction and far more interested in staying drunk than acting like Franklin’s father. It is ‘the old man’ who takes on a father role for Franklin. Still, Franklin has clearly suffered, and his relationship with Eldon is strained. It is perhaps his approaching death that makes Eldon finally open up to Franklin.
“His life was built of the stories of vague ghosts. He wanted desperately to see them fleshed out and vital. History, he supposed, lacked that power. ”
As his body begins to shut down, Eldon finds himself recounting his life to Franklin: his childhood, marked by poverty and loss, fighting alongside his best friend in the Korean War, what led to him to a path of spiralling alcoholism and self-hatred, before finally turning to his relationship with Franklin’s mother. Eldon’s troubled past brings about questions of cowardice and bravery, of loneliness and connection.
“The certainty of failure, the landscape of his secrets, became the terror that kept him awake.”
Wagamese’s story hit close to home as Franklin’s confusing emotions towards his father are depicted with incredible realism. Is it fair for Eldon to seek forgiveness when he’s about die? Should Franklin condone him in light of Eldon’s traumatic past? Wagamese doesn’t offer us simplified answers, letting his characters talk it out (with each other and themselves).
“The light weakened. He could feel the thrust of evening working its way through the cut of the valley and he watched the shapes of things alter. The sun sat blood red near the lip of the world and in that rose and canted light he sat there filled with wonder and a welling sorrow. He wiped his face with the palm of his hand and he stared down across the valley. Soon the light had nudged down deeper into shadow and it was like he existed in a dream world, hung there above that peaceful space where the wind ruled, and he could feel it push against him.”
In many ways Medicine Walk feels less like a novel that a long conversation: between a dying man and his child, between a man and his past, and between people and nature. Wagamese compassionate portrayal of addiction and shame, as well as his affecting examination of grief, family, history, forgiveness, and freedom, make Medicine Walk a book of rare beauty.
“He sat on the fence rail and rolled another smoke, looking at the spot where the coyotes had disappeared. The spirit of them still clung to the gap in the trees. But the kid could feel them in the splayed moonlight and for a time he wondered about journeys, about endings, about things left behind, questions that lurk forever in the dark of attic rooms, unspoken, unanswered, and when the smoke was done he crushed it out on the rail and cupped it in his palm while he walked back to the barn in the first pale, weak light of dawn.”
My rating: 4 of 5 stars