There is that little bit of hurt and confusion in all of us. We are suppose to be this perfect being but somewhere along the line in our lives there is that moment of betray and anguish that seems to freezes us in our tracks. Richard Wagamese deals with those feelings in his well-crafted and simple novel Medicine Walk and gives as all – no matter who we are – something to reflect on.
He was big for his age, raw-boned and angular, and he had a serious look that seemed culled from sullenness, and he was quiet, so some called him moody, pensive, and deep. He was none of those. Instead, he’d grown comfortable with aloneness and he bore an economy with words that was blunt, direct, more a man’s talk than a kid’s. So that people found his silence odd and they avoided him, the obdurate Indian look of him unnerving even for a sixteen-year-old. The old man had taught him the value of work early and he was content to labour, finding his satisfaction in farm work and his joy in horses and the untrammelled open of the high country. He’d was left school as he was legal. He had no mind for books and out here where he spent the bulk of his free time there was no need for elevated ideas or theories or talk and he was taciturn he was content in it, hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian. The old man said it was his way and he’d always taken that for truth. His life had become horseback in solitude, lean-tos cut from spruce, fires in the night, mountain air that tasted sweet and pure as spring water, and trails too dim to see that he learned to follow high to places only cougars, marmots, and eagles knew. The old man had taught him most of what he knew but he was old and too cramped up for saddles now and the kid had come to the land alone for the better part of four years. Days, weeks sometimes. Alone. He’d never know lonely. If he put his head to it all he couldn’t work a definition for the word. It sat in him undefined and unnecessary like algebra; land and moon and water summing up the only equation that lent scope to his world, and he rode through it fleshed out and comfortable with the feel of the land around him like the refrain of an old hymn. It was what he knew. It was what he needed.
The story deals with teenage Franklin Starlight – or more often referred to as “The Kid.” Frank is raised on a farm by someone he knows as “The Old Man.” Frank has fleeting moments where is real father appears, but they are cruel, unkind and confusing memories. Then one day Frank is called to visit his father. He does so and finds him sick and dying after years of drinking. Frank and his father travel through the British Columbia interior and in the journey, Frank learns his father’s story.
“Your mother?” Becka asked. “You never wanted to find out how she made out?”
His father gazed at the kid meekly. There was a depth to his eyes the kid had never seen, a woe, a bleak space all the light seemed to seep into and fade, and it embarrassed him and he looked away. His father picked up the mug of whisky and held it in both hands, spun it slowly in his palms then set it down on the floor again. He put his head back and stared at the ceiling. “Didn’t know how to try,” he said. “Never cottoned on to whether she wanted me gone or saved.”
“You’re sure she was makin’ a choice?” Becka asked.
“Felt like it right then,” he said. “Felt like I was no account and it pissed me off. Made walkin’ away easier, but the anger cooled after a time. Then it was just gullt an’ shame over leavin’ her alone with that bastard. Got to be so it ate at me bad. I dealt with it the only way I knew how.”
He looked at the kid. But the kid wouldn’t meet his eye, and he put a hand to his forehead and ran his palm across the top of his head. “Love an’ shame never mix,” he said. “one’s always gonna be runnin’ roughshod over the other. Lovin’ her. Feelin’ guilt an’ shame then gettin’ angry as hell at myself. I never cold figger what to do and then there was a whole pile of years go by an’ I give up on it.”
“You chicken-shitted me out of a grandmother,” the kid said quietly, staring at his feet.
“Wasn’t no chicken shit,” Eldon said quietly. “You think leavin’ was easy and then stayin’ gone?”
“What would you call it then?” The kid looked up at him and glared. “You run off with yer tail between yer legs like a whipped pup.”
His father picked up the whisky again and held it to his lips. He closed his eyes. He sighed and set the mug down on the floor again without drinking. “Hurt is all,” he said. “Big bad hurt.”
Wagamese has mixed together a great story here. Using language that is colourful and realistic to his characters and vivid descriptions of the surrounds, he has created a tasteful plot that a reader’s mind will savour for more.
His father smoked and crushed the butt against the trunk of a tree. He looked up at the kid, who watched him, and he tucked the dead butt into his pocket. He exhaled long and slow and raised his head to the sky. Shadows fell on his face and the branches pushed by the breeze made it appear to move, to shift, to alter, and the kid felt hollow watching life dance across his father’s face.
“Stories get told one word at a time,” he said quietly. “Somethin’ your grandmother said. Stories get told one word at a time. Maybe she was talkin’ about life I didn’t have the ear to hear it though.”
The kid waited for more. His father let his head drop, his chin nearly resting on his collarbone. His eyes blinked and he closed them finally and lay there, breathing deeply, and the kid thought he passed out but he opened his eyes and turned to him. They regarded each other without speaking.
No matter who you are, what your background is or where you live, Richard Wagamese has written a great novel that will speak to you. Medicine Walk is one of the most profound reads released in 2014.