Yash Recommends: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Franklin Starlight is called to visit his father, Eldon. He’s sixteen years old and has had the most fleeting of relationships with the man. The rare moments they’ve shared haunt and trouble Frank, but he answers the call, a son’s duty to a father. He finds Eldon decimated after years of drinking, dying of liver failure in a small town flophouse. Eldon asks his son to take him into the mountains, so he may be buried in the traditional Ojibway manner.

What ensues is a journey through the rugged and beautiful backcountry, and a journey into the past, as the two men push forward to Eldon’s end. From a poverty-stricken childhood, to the Korean War, and later the derelict houses of mill towns, Eldon relates both the desolate moments of his life and a time of redemption and love and in doing so offers Frank a history he has never known, the father he has never had, and a connection to himself he never expected.

A novel about love, friendship, courage, and the idea that the land has within it powers of healing, Medicine Walk reveals the ultimate goodness of its characters and offers a deeply moving and redemptive conclusion. Wagamese’s writing soars and his insight and compassion are matched by his gift of communicating these to the reader.

This book was beautiful.

We follow Franklin, a steadfast and stoic young man who has had to live his life alone; though he attests to never being lonely and, looking out over the landscape and sitting on his horse, he explains that he simply doesn’t understand the word. Though his father had long since abandoned him, when the call comes for Franklin to go and see his father (for what might be the last time, for what is always potentially the last time) he goes. It’s his father after all and there is no drama in that, just a sense of simple respect in the fact. Franklin’s father is an unredeemable sloth; he leeches off the very ground he sleep son and he smells of booze and smoke. But then he asks Franklin to take him up the mountain to be buried in the traditional Ojibway fashion … and Franklin says yes.

This story, like so many others, is about the journey; but unlike any other that I have read, it is also deeply rooted in the landscape and in the simple respect and love, of parent and child, child and parent.

Medecine Walk was written by Richard Wagamese (born 1955, near Minaki, Ontario) who is an author and journalist from the Ojibway Wabasseemoong First Nation in northwestern Ontario, Canada. The clarity with which Wagamese paints his native landscape is breathtaking and leads the reader by the eyes through the story.

All that said, I have to admit that I was utterly incapable of sitting down and settling into this book, in the end it took me almost two weeks to read a book of about 250 pages. I think this is because, I would all of a sudden feel myself drifting away from the story into my own mind and my own memories because the descriptions would stretch out over pages and I’d have a hard time focussing. The action is far and few between, which is fitting for this sort of story–it’s not about action, it’s about coming to terms with life, death, and the harsh beauty of nature–but this made it particularly hard to me to settle into.

For me the plotline really sparkles when we get discussions, which doesn’t happen often, and it sparkles when we get snapshot (shorter more breathtaking) views over the land, and it positively radiates when we get into Ojibway culture.

I wholeheartedly recommend this book to lovers of landscape and journeys, to those looking to explore First Nations stories, and for anyone in love with literary fiction.

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