Friday, October 6, 2017

Stories and Voices: Richard Wagamese's The Medicine Walk

author Richard Wagamese

I had never heard of Richard Wagamese until earlier this year when his untimely and sudden death at the age of 61 was announced. Over the summer I read his novel, The Medicine Walk (McClelland & Stewart), published in 2014, and I so valued it that I have read three more of his books since.

Wagamese was an Ojibwe from the Wabaseemoong Independent Nations in northwestern Ontario. He was a prolific writer. He wrote 6 novels, a book of poetry, and five non-fiction titles. He is best known for his novel, Indian Horse (Douglas & McIntyre, 2012), which won the Burt Award for First Nations, Metis and Inuit Literature. This story has now been made into a film that was premiered at TIFF this past September. Wagamese was also an award-winning journalist and producer. He was the recipient of the National Aboriginal Achievement Award for Media and Communications, the Molson Prize and the Canada Reads People’s Choice Award.

His writing addresses the psychological impact of residential schools on those who suffered through that experience as well as how those events continue to impact their families and communities. His novels also deal with the racism directed at indigenous people, while describing strong relationships between indigenous and non-indigenous characters. His books are imbued with a sense of hope.

The Medicine Walk, set in British Columbia, tells the story of a young indigenous boy, Franklin Starlight. His father, Eldon, handed him over at a few days old into the care of a non-indigenous man, described only as the “old man.” There is a history between Eldon and the “old man” that emerges as the novel continues. The “old man,” a farmer, became a substitute father and provided Franklin with love, knowledge about farming, a respect for the land, and a sense of how “to be.” Eldon struggles with alcoholism and remains in sporadic and problematic contact with his son until his teenage years. At that point, dying after years of alcoholism, he gets in touch with his son and asks him to visit him at his place of lodging in town. When Frank arrives, Eldon asks him to take him on a journey through the wild interior BC landscape to the place where he wants to die. Much of the novel describes this journey, and their struggle to survive in the rough terrain until they reach the chosen place. 

Wagamese is a wonderful writer. He is, above all, a great storyteller, and storytelling is the vehicle that propels the narrative through to the end of the book. It moves backwards and forward from the present to the past, unfolding slowly as one reads. There are stories within stories, because Wagamese makes storytelling a major theme of the novel – stories told, stories withheld and eventually told. He describes their magical power and their ability to entrance, transform and inspire the listeners through the character of the boy’s mother:

“ . . . her acts of conjuring, shifting nights into days of adventure, daring, and mystery. The words compelling in the textures she wove them in. The dreams made real by the shifts of tone, emphasis, and the long, almost painful pauses she held them with, restrained and breathless, until released into the flow of the tale again.”

It is through stories that the complex relationship between Frank and his father is also explored, during their long journey together.



Here is Wagamese’s comment on storytelling:

“All that we are is story. From the moment we are born to the time we continue on our spirit journey, we are involved in the creation of the story of our time here. It is what we arrive with. It is all we leave behind. We are not the things we accumulate. We are not the things we deem important. We are story. All of us. What comes to matter then is the creation of the best possible story we can while we’re here; you, me, us, together. When we can do that and we take the time to share those stories with each other, we get bigger inside, we see each other, we recognize our kinship – we change the world, one story at a time . . . ”

Wagamese’s characters are engaging. The struggles of the young boy, Frank, how he views the world, and how he copes with school are supported by the strength of his relationship with the “old man.” The voice of the boy often seems to be that of an older, more mature man rather than of a very young boy and then the adolescent portrayed in the novel. While this voice seems sometimes out of place and time, it nevertheless enriches our understanding of the character of Frank. It gives full play to the emotions of a boy coming to terms with the disappointments of a difficult relationship with his father, and the growing knowledge of his family history. We feel the helplessness of his father, Eldon and the strength of the “old man.”

The novel also illustrates Wagamese’s personal, strong and intimate connection with the land. His descriptions, as seen through the eyes of the young boy, are beautiful and poetic; for example, the sentences that describes Frank’s joy watching the coyotes at play in the moonlight. Here is another brief example of the writing that describes the relationship of the young boy to the land:

“To say he loved it was a word beyond him then but he came to know the feeling. It was opening your eyes on a misty early summer morning to see the sun as a smudge of pale orange above the teeth of the trees with the taste of coming rain in his mouth, and the smell of camp coffee, rope, gunpowder, and horses. It was the feel of the land at his back when he slept and the hearty, moist promise of it rising from everything.”

The paragraph continues with a further description of the ways in which Frank experiences the land. As he grows up, the land becomes the source of his expertise, his self-knowledge and in times of anger and sadness, his refuge.

There is no happy ending but there is a believable one. One is left with a sense of hope and an understanding of the formidable mental and physical strength of the young boy, Frank. The Medicine Walk is a book to be savoured, and upon a second reading I found it even more engaging.

– Felicity Somerset is a fine art photographer, based in Toronto. Her practice focuses on the intimate and often abstracted image that captures the essence and intricacies of rural and urban landscapes. Her photography is exhibited frequently in both group and solo shows in galleries and public spaces throughout Ontario, and her work is in private collections in Canada, the U.S., England, France, Israel, Costa Rica and the Cayman Islands.

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