Brilliant. Compelling. Masterpiece. These are just a few of the adjectives that come to mind when I think of Richard Wagamese’s latest novel Medicine Walk.
Sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight is summoned by his estranged father, Eldon, an alcoholic dying of liver failure. Eldon, who has been nothing but a disappointment, asks his son to take him out to the land and bury him in “the warrior way” of their ancestors. Franklin agrees and thus begins his journey of acceptance, belonging and reconciliation.
“I want you to take me there.”
“Why would you want to go out there in your condition?”
“Because I need you to bury me there.”
The kid sat with the coffee cup half raised to his mouth and he felt the urge to laugh and stand up and walk out and head back to the old farm. But his father looked at him earnestly and he could see pain in his eyes and something leaner, sorrow maybe, regret, or some ragged woe tattered by years.
Wagamese is a storyteller and Medicine Walk is his, and our, truth about the role stories play in who we are and how we live. While Eldon is hiding from his story, Franklin is searching for his. Through this narrative contrast, the reader comes to know even more potently that the stories we don’t tell are, in fact, as important as the ones we do.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
The kid laid the knife in his lap. “I got no idea ya would or ya wouldn’t.”
“I couldn’t lie about her. I tried to lie to myself a lotta years. Tried to tell myself it was some other way than it was.” He raised himself painfully up on one elbow and grimaced. “Guess I figured I might drink it away. Idea never did work worth a damn.”
The role played by the mountainous B.C. interior is an equally important one in Franklin’s journey: because it’s from the land that he gains his greatest strength.
He picked up more and hurled them until his arm succumbed to the effort and he leaned over with his hands on his knees and drew deep, quaking breaths until he calmed again and felt strong enough to return to the man who was his father.
What Wagamese creates in the pages of Medicine Walk is almost beyond description because words can’t quite do it justice. So luminous is his prose that he’s able to give presence to a character that isn’t even there. Crafting three consecutive pages of the most poignant narrative I’ve ever read.
His father became the scratch of a pencil nub on paper in the wavered light of a candle. He became the faraway look in his mother’s eyes as she wrote, staring into the candle flame for minutes at a time. He became the long act of waiting. He became the flash of him, white as bone and clenched in his mother’s hand.
Medicine Walk has solidified Wagamese as not only a must read author but also Canada’s finest storyteller.
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Copyright © 2014 by Richard Wagamese. Published by McClelland & Stewart, a division of Random House, LLC, a Penguin Random House Company.