Open a book this minute and start reading. Don’t move until you’ve reached page fifty. Until you’ve buried your thoughts in print. Cover yourself with words. Wash yourself away. Dissolve. Carol Shields Republic of Love

Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk (2014)

One might say that Medicine Walk is a novel about the disconnect between a father and a son.

Medicine Walk Wagamese

McClelland & Stewart, 2014

“Eldon Starlight. Franklin Starlight. Four blunt syllables conjuring nothing. When he appeared the kid would watch him and whisper his name under his breath, waiting for a hook to emerge, a nail he could hang context on, but he remained a stranger on the fringes of his life.”

One might say that it is a story about the disconnect between the son and the other boys.

“He was the only Indian kid and they didn’t trust him. He didn’t hold out much trust for them either. They were mostly town kids who’d never gutted a deer or cut a dying heifer out of a tangle of barbed wire. They lived for games and play and talk, and the kid was used to being talked to and treated like a man.”

And one might say that it is about the disconnect between that father and the land, between those boys and the land.

“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, gun powder, 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. It was the feeling of the hackles rising slowly on the back of your neck when there was a bear yards away in the bush and the catch in the throat at the sudden explosion of an eagle from a tree. It was also the feel of water from a mountain spring. Ice like light splashed over your face. The old man brought him to all of that.”

But while Medicine Walk is about all of these things, the heart of the novel resides in passages like this, which reveal that it is as much a novel about connection as disconnection.

In itself, this passage about connection is powerful. But within the passage, stark moments of simple beauty are almost overwhelming.

There are no games played with vocabulary or sentence structure, but the use of the words ‘teeth’ and ‘light’, combined with a few sensory details bring this scene to readers in an inescapably bold sweep of emotion.

Many aspects of this story are painful. The father’s experiences with the war are particularly brutal, in an up-close and suddenly life-changing way.

‘The war became the knowledge that life can strip you raw, that some holes are never filled, some gaps not chinked, some chill winds relentless in their pitch and yowl.”

And there are agonizing long-spun-out brutalities here too.

“’Well, whisky keeps things away that some people don’t want around neither. Like dreams, recollections, wishes, other people sometimes.’ The old man turned on the stool and set the milk pail down on the floor between his feet. ‘Things get busted sometimes. When they happen in the world you can fix ’em most times. But when they happen inside a person they’re harder to mend.’”

But there are moments of great beauty too.

“Then he said that she brung him to life. Said he was movin’ through his life by recollection until she come along and showed him how to look at things again.
“ ‘I got bigger on accounta her.’ That’s what he said. ‘I got made better.”

There is respite. Kindness. Resilience.

“Stories were his wound. When he came to think of them it wasn’t for the glimmer of worlds spun out of darkness and firelight, it was for the sudden holes life can sometimes fall into.”

This makes it sound like a deliberately constructed exchange, and that’s not entirely untrue. There is a sense of balance to Medicine Walk, a deliberate movement, though as often backwards as forwards.

But the twinned intensities are not joined hand-in-hand like schoolchildren. Even if one might draw out the extreme emotions in the story like a diagram in high-school English class, with a fulcrum between polarities, Medicine Walk does not feel like a novel which can be broken down, piece by piece, into components.

It feels pervasively sad, and pervasively beautiful, all at the same time, and all the way through.

“Down the one side was a tangle of lilacs, un-pruned and ramshackle, old and uncared for, scraping against the side of the house, and there was only one bloom. It sat high at the point farthest from the house. A small dab of colour. It made the house more sullen, bleaker, and the kid wanted to pluck it and carry it somewhere where it would not feel alone, save it maybe, in a jar in the sunlight, and he felt the tears come until the old man walked back and put his arm around him and they made their way back to the barn where they’d left the horses.”

Medicine Walk feels like Richard Wagamese plucked that dab of colour and held it in his hands until it soaked into his skin, un-pruned and ramshackle, out from the land and into the being.

It feels like he plucked it and saved it at the same time.

It feels impossibly right.

IFOASmallBadgeRichard Wagamese will appear at the 2014 International Festival of Authors.

This post is part of BIP’s annual celebration of this literary event.

Next Wednesday, thoughts on David Adams Richards’ Crimes Against My Brother.

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