In his Harvey Southam lecture at the University of Victoria in 2011, Richard Wagamese made a statement that applies to all of his considerable oeuvre (13 books to date): “Stories are the very foundation of our business here. At the bottom of all human interaction is that one subtextual phrase: tell me a story.”
But storytelling is not all there is to literary fiction, which Medicine Walk most certainly is. Embedded in this journey of a boy and his dying father is the author’s philosophy of story, with an emphasis on the power of expression. Medicine Walk is his most poetic novel.
As an author, Wagamese is a late bloomer. A literary career was hardly indicated in the childhood and adolescence of an Ojibwa boy who grew up in a broken community on the Winnipeg River in northwestern Ontario. In February 1958, when he was not yet three, Wagamese and his three siblings were abandoned in a bush camp when the adults left on a drinking binge in Kenora. When the food and firewood ran out, his elder sister hauled the children across a frozen bay by sled. They were found by a provincial policeman, huddled next to an old railroad depot. Placed in foster care, Wagamese entered into an equally perilous life that removed him from his family and community for 21 years. Beatings and abuse in foster care led to his leaving home at 16, to live on the street, in and out of prison, abusing drugs and alcohol. He was a lost soul at 25 when his brother Charles located him.
In an essay in Response, Responsibility and Renewal: Canada’s Truth and Reconciliation Journey, Wagamese writes, “I did not speak my first Ojibwa word or set foot on my traditional territory until I was twenty-six. I did not know that I had a family, a history, a culture, a source for spirituality, a cosmology, or a traditional way of living. I had no awareness that I belonged somewhere.”
He soon learned an important lesson about letting go of anger at his own circumstances in order to go forward. But anger fuelled Wagamese’s journalistic career, once he learned of Canada’s residential school policy and began interviewing survivors. His journalism led to a National Newspaper Award and his narrative skills expanded as he worked in radio, television (North of 60) and documentary filmmaking. He turned his own stories and those of the street youth he had hung with into his first novel, Keeper’n Me, in 1994.
Wagamese’s fiction remained essentially reportial, his hallmark an ability to capture dialogue. His prose developed a pleasing rolling cadence, reflective of the Ojibwa rhythms he absorbed when he relearned his first language. There were humour and Native legend, and a growing sense of a universal Canadian experience in the books that came later. One of his best, Indian Horse, juxtaposes memories of an idyllic traditional life against the “hell on earth” that was St. Jerome’s residential school.
With his previous novels Wagamese focused on the Native experience, telling stories that could come only from that milieu in a fashion that ties them to the oral tradition. With Medicine Walk, he has launched himself into the realm of the contemporary novel, more concerned with the rhetoric of fiction, narrative technique and universal themes than in the past. His characters are not all aboriginal and they inhabit a world dominated by non-Natives.
The strength of Medicine Walk is its structure. Wagamese adopts a cinematic technique for the gradual unfolding of the stories of “the kid,” Franklin; the old man who raised him; and his biological father, Eldon Starlight. The kid has been summoned by Eldon to take him on a trail into the mountains to a place where the dying Indian father wishes to be buried, warrior style, seated and facing out over the land. The old man has insisted it is Eldon’s obligation to reveal to his son how he gave him up to a white farmer. The kid needs to have his dad tell him his story so that he knows his own origins. Eldon’s story is his redemption.
Wagamese writes in a heightened, sensuous prose that anchors the story in the land, but also gives it a mythic dimension. Two worlds define the divide between father and son. On the trail, in woods and fields or along the river, the kid is at home, at ease, knowledgeable and serene: “His life had become horseback in solitude, lean-tos cut from spruce, fires in the night, mountain air that tasted sweet and pure as spring water, and trails too dim to see that he learned to follow high to places only cougars, marmots, and eagles knew.”
Town is Eldon’s reality: a harsh, degrading, humiliating, alcoholic life repulsive to his son. In the rooming house where Franklin finds him, “the walls were panelled a cheap laminate brown and the threadbare carpets had faded from pumpkin to a sad, mouldy orange and the newel of the staircase was split and cracked. He could smell cooking and hear the jump of fat in a fry pan.”
Franklin’s first sight of his father, drunk, slovenly, partially clothed, in bed with a whore in the same condition makes a viscerally offensive scene that would send anyone heading for the hills. In flashbacks we learn that this has been the pattern for the boy, since the first shocking moment, at age six or seven, when he learned that this irresponsible, dishevelled drunk was his real father. Out of a strange sense of duty, knowing that he will accompany his father to his death, the kid agrees to his father’s request: to take him on horseback to a shelf high in the hills where he wishes to be buried. The tacit understanding is that the father will in turn explain himself to his son.
There are literary antecedents for Medicine Walk, perhaps most consciously, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. The spare prose, the vivid details, and the mythic elements—an old woman who helps with a brew that eases the pain of Eldon’s dying, a bear that confronts them on the trail, visions that come to both men in the night—comprise the stuff of epics.
The narrative is propelled by questions: What has turned Eldon into such a hopeless drunk? Why did he give up his son? Who is the old man? And most of all, who is Franklin’s mother?
Where Medicine Walk falters is in the voice of the narrator. The experimental aspect of the novel is in the creation of a very poetic storyteller who overrides the voices of the characters whose stories are being told. When the characters speak in ways that could never achieve the majesty of the written narrative, the reader becomes all too aware of the author’s hand. It is a problem when the narration of Medicine Walk shifts to the story of Eldon’s adolescence: “His father became weeks of worry … He became silence. Nights of it. Mornings stretched their limit by it.” Such metaphoric composition is out of synch with Eldon’s form of expression in the previous chapter, where he is given to lines like, “I could use me more of that fire.”
Such jarring moments aside, Medicine Walk is a compelling, evocative work of fiction, one that persuades us of the truth of its central theme: stories can heal both the teller and the reader or listener.