Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

January 17, 2021 Leave a comment Go to comments

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (2015) French title: Les étoiles s’éteignent à l’aube. Translated by Christine Raguet.

A couple of months back, I gifted myself with a Kube subscription. I described my reading tastes, chose an independent libraire (of course, I selected Charlotte, whose bookstore is named La vie devant soiLife Before Us) to pick me a monthly read. I love book blind dates.

Medecine Walk by Richard Wagamese was the first book I received through this monthly subscription and Charlotte was spot on. Wagamese (1955-2017) is a Canadian indigenous writer, from the Ojibwe nation.

Medecine Walk takes us to British Columbia, the cold part of the state. Franklin (Frank) Starlight is sixteen. He doesn’t know who his mother is and his contacts with his father have been scarce and disastrous. Eldon is an alcoholic who works to pay his booze and otherwise lives in squalor.

Frank was raised on a small farm by The Old Man. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to him but this man took him in and raised him as his son. Franklin is a quiet boy, hardworking and attuned to the majestic nature around him. He loves solitary travels in the woods and knows how to survive in the wilderness. He never made friends in school, was called Injun too many times and dropped out of school as soon as he could.

He’s quite content with his life when his father Eldon asks him to come and visit him. Frank goes reluctantly and learns that his father is dying. Alcohol got the better of him and now he wants to go and die like a warrior, sitting facing east. He has a spot in mind and wants Frank to take him there.

This cathartic journey will be an opportunity for Eldon to reveal his past to his son, give him some clues about where he comes from and who The Old Man is. For Frank, this difficult walk with his suffering father is his chance to reconnect to his past, to patch up the foundations of his soul that were fractured by his unknown origins and be stronger for the future.

When I pick up pieces of Eldon’s story to build a timeline in my head, I come to the conclusion that Frank was born around 1960, so, about the same as Wagamese. Frank doesn’t know much about his biological parents, and that’s a big issue. Eldon doesn’t talk much and The Old Man always thought it wasn’t his story to tell, leaving a young boy wondering about his mother, instinctively looking for her around him. Eldon starts talking when he doesn’t have a choice, when taking his memories with him in the grave would end up erasing his presence on Earth. After all, after we’re gone, we only survive in others’ memories.

Eldon’s story is sad but Frank holds his own and doesn’t accept his father’s circumstances as valid excuses. At least, not readily. He can’t help thinking that you always have a choice and that Eldon took the easy route, leaving his son in someone else’s care and using his addiction as an excuse not to step up. Of course, things are always more complicated than that but Frank is only sixteen.

The truth is Eldon himself doesn’t know much about his lineage. His surname is Starlight and he doesn’t know where it comes from. He feels not uprooted but “unrooted”. To be uprooted would mean he had roots in the first place but although he knew his parents, he doesn’t know much about Ojibwe traditions. He’s in a strange limbo, the whites see him as an Indian and he doesn’t belong to an Ojibwe community. It’s hard to build a strong backbone in these conditions. Although Eldon didn’t go to a boarding school for Indigenous people, I couldn’t help thinking that his not knowing about his family’s history was the direct consequence of the Canadian indigenous people policies.

As a reader, I was happy that Frank got the clues about his past when he was young enough to patch up his inner holes. He has a chance to mend himself and move on. I liked that he listened to his father but that he was smart enough to keep his critical mind. I closed the book thinking he’s be alright.

Medicine Walk is a good reading companion to The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert and Eldon’s life reminded me of stories by Annie Proulx.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Charlotte!

  1. January 17, 2021 at 10:43 am

    How lovely to have a libraire sending you customised surprise parcels. I’ve done the same and, since my libraire is Jacqui, who knows my tastes very well from Twitter, I can see this will be an amazing and inspiring thing!
    This book sounds very interesting. A subject I still know so little about, look forward to hearing more of these voices. So you read this in French, I take it?

    Like

    • January 17, 2021 at 10:50 am

      It’s lovely and I’m like a little kid with these parcels. It’s much needed in these desolate times.

      Yes, I receive books in French, through this subscription. It’s not available in ebook but it’s available in English otherwise. (It sounds weird to mention it’s available in its original language but between Benjamin Whitmer’s last books that are only published in French translations and other paperbacks in French that are out-of-print in the original, you never know.)

      I have a soft spot for British Columbia: that’s where I went for my honeymoon!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. January 17, 2021 at 11:34 pm

    I’ve heard lots of good things about this book but haven’t read it yet. Isn’t it wonderful how bookshops have come up such creative ways of still serving their customers? It would indeed be special to receive those packages.

    Like

    • January 18, 2021 at 7:55 am

      I’m looking forward to your post, if you decide to read it.

      Actually, this subscription is to a startup company which relies on a network of bookstores.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. January 19, 2021 at 7:52 am

    Don’t think this one is for me. I subscribed to Audible not knowing how much I’d like it or use, but I’m hooked.

    Like

    • January 19, 2021 at 8:17 am

      It’s not a book I would have picked for you but I think you’d like Richard Stark I reviewed earlier.
      I have to try Audible, maybe I’d like it too. I’m not sure I could concentrate enough to follow the story, though.

      Like

  4. buriedinprint
    January 19, 2021 at 11:44 pm

    This was one of my favourite reads the year it was published and Wagamese is one of my MRE (Must Read Everything) writers, so I really enjoyed your thoughts on this, and the idea of it being read in French. I’ve been dipping into one of his volumes of non-fiction this year and am almost finished. You’re correct in observing the legacy of trauma from the residential school system on some of his characters; he wrote more explicitly about this in a novel called Indian Horse, which is perhaps his best-known novel in Canada, and a little shorter and (even though you wouldn’t guess this to be true) a little bit lighter than Medicine Walk (which is so overtly about mortality and legacy in general). Ironically, the covers you’ve got here are all lovely, but none is the original Canadian cover that i know so well.

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    • January 20, 2021 at 7:19 am

      I’ll keep Indian Horse in mind, it’s the second time I get this recommendation.
      Why would you find it remarkable that Medicine Walk is available in French? Isn’t that the language of Québec readers? I’m always surprised that, in a country with two official languages, successful books don’t get automatically translated.

      About covers: I take them on Goodreads and I don’t pay attention to the publisher but more of the date it was published.

      Like

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