Ever since the success of Indian Horse, readers have been eagerly awaiting a new book from Kamloops author Richard Wagamese.
Wagamese became a household name in 2013, when Indian Horse was a part of CBC’s Canada Reads competition, and was the winner of the Canada Reads People’s Choice Award. That same year, Wagamese hosted a writing camp in Penticton for creative writing students at Princess Margaret High School.
In his new book, Medicine Walk, teenager Franklin Starlight is sent to fulfill a strange request for his father, Eldon, who he has only met on a few less-than-happy occasions.
A deadbeat dad and alcoholic, Eldon is dying of liver failure in a mill town flophouse. He asks his son to take him on a journey into the hills, so he can die and be buried like an Ojibway warrior.
Franklin at first refuses. In his mind, Eldon is neglectful and weak — the opposite of a warrior. Eldon rarely visited the farm where Franklin was raised by an elderly farmer – and each visit was a bitter disappointment. Even so, it’s hard to refuse a dying man’s request, and Franklin eventually agrees to transport his father by horseback into the hills of the B.C. interior.
What follows is a story of redemption, and a journey into Eldon’s past, as he reveals the life he has lived — from childhood poverty, to the Korean War, to lost love and his inability to be a father. Eldon has never been able to speak about his past, or reveal his story to his son.
Less reliant on plot, this book is an art piece about the power of storytelling. It delves into the storytelling tradition, exploring what the act of storytelling gives to the narrator and what it means to the listener. It reveals the inward process that must happen before someone can harness the power of stories and be able to relate them to others.
The writing of Medicine Walk was deeply personal. In a Globe and Mail interview, Wagamese laments that people rarely ask him about the inspiration for his books. And he wishes they would. “I wrote Medicine Walk because of the prevalence of absent or displaced fathers in Native communities across the country. I am also a displaced dad and I wanted to offer my sons a glimpse into why they grew up without me.”
I didn’t find Franklin or many of the other minor characters in the book to be entirely realistic. But the more I read, the more I realized that this might have been point.
Reading this book, I was to feel that I was inside a legend, and visiting a place that doesn’t exist outside of story. And because Medicine Walk is a powerful story, not real life, I was able to step back and look for meaning, and ultimately, answers.
Heather Allen is an avid reader and book reviewer living in Penticton.