My review of “Medicine Walk” by Richard Wagamese,Reviewed by S N Smith, Ottawa

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My review of “Medicine Walk” by Richard Wagamese

Reviewed by S N Smith — January 24, 2019
If you were to ask me why I like to read, by way of a response I would hand you three books. The first would be The Age of Longing by Richard B. Wright, which is as about as perfect a novel as one can write.  Secondly, I would hand you No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod, a marvelous masterpiece of writing and storytelling. Then I would hand you Medicine Walk by Canadian First-Nations author Richard Wagamese, which I will write about here.
Medicine Walk is a story about a 16-year-old indigenous boy, named Frank, who is estranged from his father and does not know who his mother is. From infancy, Frank is brought up by a non-indigenous man, called ‘the old man’ in the book, who teaches him how to farm and live off the land, as well as the value of hard work.
Frank masters these with great adeptness and becomes what would best be described as a survivalist.
When Frank is a young boy he finds out who his real father is, an indigenous man named Eldon who has ruined his life with hard living and drinking and who occasionally drops in and out of  Frank’s life.
The knowledge of who his real father is, as well as not knowing the identity of his mother, causes Frank to wonder about who and what he really is and where he fits in.
This wondering is a major theme of the novel.
The reader may tend to be judgmental of Eldon for being a neglectful parent and a hard boozer, but as the novel unfolds and more of Eldon’s past life becomes known, that judgement weakens.

Eldon is dying of liver failure and he asks Frank to take him out to the wilderness to die. During their 40 mile trip, which is carried out on horseback, Eldon reveals things about himself that he never told anyone else.

Some words are simply too painful to be spoken, so we bottle them up and keep them hidden by resorting to destructive behavior. This may not always make sense to those looking on, but for the suffering person, it is a living hell of an existence.

And this is Eldon’s story.

Eldon explains why he never talked about what happened to him in the past and why he instead remained silent for so many years: “I was scared that if I’d fall right back into the hurt of it and keep fallin’ way beyond any bottom I ever landed in and not know how to find my way back again.”

In her 2018 CBC Massey Lecture series, titled All Our Relations: Finding the Path Forward, Tanya Talaga writes:

Profound trauma servers to isolate everyone from each other and everything they know, leaving them in a state of disrepair, feeling lost and unknowing. The isolation, the loneliness of having no belonging, is almost like a force field that surrounds you; you can’t reach out, and no one can reach in.  You can’t talk to anyone your bring anyone into your world of grief, and the only time you feel safe is when you are alone, when you are completely isolated and cut off from everyone else. These feelings shatter any chance of creating healthy human attachments. This is what is means to live through the trauma lens.

There are three parts to what amounts to Eldon’s deathbed confession.
First, he talks about his childhood with his mother, how they lived after his father was killed in WWII and how he became separated from her when he was 18 years old.
He then discusses his experience in the Korean War with his good friend Jimmy.
Finally, he talks about Frank’s mother, how they met and the gut-wrenching reason behind why Frank was left with the old man.
The details of each of these three parts are sources of great pain and anguish for Eldon and he feels tremendous guilt over the decisions he has made.
Frank, however,  is not always receptive to what his dying father has to say because he also feels a sense of loss of not knowing who he is and blames his father for this.
The reader sympathizes with Frank’s feelings and reactions right up until the end until the full story of Eldon’s very sad and guilt ridden life is revealed.
The novel is filled with a lot of sadness and tragedy.  It possesses a rich interiority in that it discloses, with great sensitivity and insight, the inner suffering and turmoil of  the characters.
To say that Wagamese is an excellent writer is an understatement. There is not a single word that is out of place, and the imagery and emotions he evokes with his pen are almost magical. The narrative is simple and the language is clear. But the feelings this novel invokes is one of deep sorrow, as well as a sense of the lost and might have been.
Why I recommend this novel is not because I want to read stories that make a person feel sad. This book could be correctly read as a commentary on the destructive impact of colonization on indigenous people.  But in his story, Wagamese also lays bare the universal longing we humans carry within us regarding our quest for a sense of belonging and self-knowledge and just how elusive that quest can be.
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