In a recent conversation with Shelagh Rogers and Joseph Boyden about storytelling as redemption, Richard Wagamese spoke about the role of stories in his life. Throughout his writing career, first as a journalist and then as a novelist, he said he’d sought clarity and connection between native people and settlers. “The story of Canada is the story of her relationship with native people,” he said. “If we lean over the back fence and share part of that story with the person on the other side of the fence, we bring each other closer.”
At best, the history of native-settler relations in Canada is a series of tragic misunderstandings between nations. Wagamese is no stranger to the complicated and beleaguered nature of that project, on both sides of the fence. He has been outspoken about the problems with the Assembly of First Nations while also being a passionate supporter of Idle No More. “To be Indian in Canada today is to learn from history so it’s never repeated,” he wrote in this newspaper last year. “It’s to be a spiritual warrior in a quest for the greatest good.”
In this new novel, Wagamese presents his reader with the problem of reconciliation writ small. Franklin Starlight, 16 and raised by a guardian for most of his life, receives a summons from his biological father, who is an alcoholic dying of liver failure in a hardscrabble mill town. The request is hard to stomach: the man who has been a heartbreaking disappointment on the handful of occasions they’ve met wants his son to take him out on the land and bury him like a warrior in the way of his ancestors. Franklin balks only briefly, taking up his filial duty like the honourable man he’s been raised to be, walking out on the land behind the horse that carries the broken shell of his father. He’s an impressive young man, tough and able to support them both in the wilderness with a handful of simple tools. There is quiet strength and beauty in his self-reliance, and he is a credit to the farmer who raised him.
Over the course of their journey to his final resting place, Eldon Starlight is finally able to speak the truths that have poisoned their lives. The land is the healing presence that allows him to pull off layer after layer of the tragedy precipitated by the death of his father in the Second World War and cemented in his own experience in the theatre of war. Alcoholism is the connective tissue between and beyond these events, the lure of oblivion that Eldon is unable to resist. Wagamese’s portrait of the disease is sensitive and compassionate, but he is unflinching about the role it plays in allowing Eldon’s trauma to remain unresolved and therefore still potent in the family system. When Eldon accuses Frank of an inability to understand war because he’d never fought in one, Frank says “Not one of my own, leastways,” he says. “I’m still livin’ the one you never finished.”
Storytelling is Wagamese’s life project (he is also an oral storyteller) and this is very much a novel about the role of stories in our lives, those we tell ourselves about ourselves and those we agree to live by. He renders Eldon’s past as filmic and vivid as a nightmare, and the present he shares with his son as elliptical and plainspoken but shot through with moments of uncommon wisdom. It’s a canny narrative contrast that heightens the effect of the difficult truth that lies between them: Wagamese understands that the stories we don’t tell are as important as the ones we do. “Mosta the big talk in my life got left unsaid,” Eldon says. “Makes it tough to say anything real or hard.”
If Eldon can be read as an incarnation of what has gone wrong in this country, Franklin (named after Benjamin) is the lightning rod for change on the path that native-settler relations could take and Wagamese’s cri de coeur for the Canada that could be. His acclaimed 2012 novel Indian Horse balanced hard truths about native-settler relations with the beauty of sport. In this novel, he’s working on a different plane altogether: he has mixed the blood of his characters so thoroughly that it’s sometimes tricky to keep heritage straight, and that seems this novel’s radical point.
To be alive is to be vulnerable to the myriad shocks and disappointments of the human condition, but Medicine Walk is also testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. Franklin isn’t the first child to be dealt a hand “from the bottom of the deck” or to lose a parent to alcohol. Alcoholism observes no ethnic boundaries and neither does family dysfunction. If I may borrow his own elegant metaphor, Richard Wagamese has moved beyond talking over the fence. He’s come around to the gate now, opened it, and invited his readers to share a familiar meal.
Christine Fischer Guy’s debut novel, The Umbrella Mender, appears in September.