Medicine Wallk by Richard Wagamese

This is such a good book although not one that is easy to get hold of. My copy came all the way from America, although the author is Canadian.

On one level it tells us the story of a father and son, Eldon and Franklin Starlight who do not know each other well but where the father has asked Frank for a favour. To take him deep into the woods and to bury him facing east like a warrior would have been buried as they are both Ojibway, an indiginous group in Canada. Eldon is dying so the journey is not an easy one but part of the reason for doing it is so that Frank can find out more about his father, and his mother who he never knew.

Eldon has three significant events in his life that he has not been able to deal with: leaving his mother with an abusive boyfriend, his role in the death of his best friend Jimmy and the death of his wife, Frank’s mother. Eldon used alcohol to ‘keep things away’ such as dreams and memories and was dying of ‘alcohol sickness’ and sees the journey as an opportunity to ask for Frank’s forgiveness.

There are so many wonderful elements in this book, one of them being the descriptions of the place, backcountry Canada and the love and ease with which Frank exists in it. Raised by ‘the Old Man’ who is not his father, he can hunt and live off the land on his own at the age of sixteen and has been able to do so for several years.

There were lodgepole pines, birch, aspen and larch. The kid rode easily, smoking and guiding the horse with his knees. They edged around blackberry thickets and stepped gingerly over stumps and stones and the sore-looking red of fallen pines. It was late fall. The dark green of fir leaned to a sullen greyness, and the sudden bursts of colour from the last clinging leaves struck him like the flare of lightning bugs in a darkened field.


This is where Frank is at home. Contrast this with the description of where his father lives.

The house leaned back toward the shore so that in the encroaching dark it seemed to hover there as though deciding whether to continue hugging land or to simply shrug and surrender itself to the steel-grey muscle of the river. It was as three-storey clapboard and there were pieces of shingle strewn about the yard amid shattered windowpanes and boots and odd bits of clothing and yellowed newspapers that the wind pressed to the chicken-wire fence at its perimeter.


His father had become distanced from the land and didn’t learn the ways to live off it as his family had had to chase work to survive and that ended up being what he knew. Working in the timber mills, moving around for the work and it was hard, physical work guaranteed to ruin a body prematurely.

The walk becomes the medicine as does the time spent together in a place where they were surrounded by trees as they

. . . winked out of view as though the woods had folded itself around them, cocooned them, the chrysalis impermeable, whole, wound of time . . .


But there is also the medicine provided by the woman they meet in the shack where they wait for the rain to pass. Made from materials found in the woods, it numbs Eldon, reduces his pain and sends him into a more relaxed state of sleep. And then there is the medicine that is story. Stories abound everywhere. ‘Tracks were story’, there were the cave paintings telling stories that couldn’t necessarily be read but were important enough for someone to record, there are the stories that Eldon tells to explain himself and it is these stories that enable Frank to start to understand his father. They are not easy stories to tell or hear and for Eldon, they are the first time he has told them.

This book can also be read as a journey to reconciliation between idiginous peoples, Frank, and settlers or those divorced from the land, Eldon. Eldon asks a couple of times for forgiveness from Frank who responds that forgiveness is not his to give. He refuses to absolve Eldon and at the end when asked again, Frank leaves the question unanswered. Here, the person who is asking for forgiveness has died and so is not even present, so who is forgiven now? I wondered if Wagamese was asking whether we can insist that survivors grant us forgiveness. I think he is saying that the journey is more important than the outcome, that the stories along the way are hard to tell and to listen to and there is no guarantee that forgiveness will be the outcome. Should we even be asking for it, we the colonialists? Through telling the stories we come to understand a little more about the reasons why things were as they were – we don’t have to like them, but over time, the stories can bring us closer. It is also interesting whose stories we are listening to.

This book is a fantastic choice for a book club discussion – there is so much to talk about.

Postscript after book club discussion.

We all felt similarly about this book and had a wonderful conversation. The only difference was the degree of sympathy we felt for Eldon, some more than others, and how much forgiveness had been given or was it acceptance.

One thing that did strike me on the way over to the discussion was how like a fairy tale or traditional tale this book was. There was the element of threeness in Eldon’s stories, setting was a wooded area, there was fear with the bear which Franklin met head on and there was also the wise woman (witch) in the shack that almost appeared and was there just when she was needed. I don’t know if there is anything in this but several of the tropes are featured.

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