Monday, December 14, 2015

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Canadian author Richard Wagamese manages to slow our heart rate down with this story of an Ojibwe Indian who lost his bearings, and about an old man and a boy living on a farm carved out of the wilderness. Stories told and listened to form the heart of this novel: one feels sure that if only there were enough stories, things might have turned out differently. But in the end, the larger story—the story of this novel—lets us know that life encompasses both the tragic and the magnificent and to know one, we must know the other.
"When you share stories, you change things."
The land is central to this novel: how it nourishes and refreshes the spirit, how it returns generosity shown it. The old man and the boy live in concert with the land and, having learned its lessons, treat one another with a gentleness and love that approaches the sacred. "Just get it done," is what the old man tells himself and teaches the boy, and throughout their lives together the two of them face difficulties or obstacles with the same quiet fortitude and firmness. They discover the pleasure in bending one’s back to difficult work, and in contemplating the end of a task well done, whether it be straight, square, strong fencing or burying a man, facing east, in stony ground.

The boy’s father, Eldon Starlight, had left his son with the old man because he couldn’t find the strength within him to care for another. When gradually the outlines of Eldon’s life come into focus, we discover his struggles are mostly internal, that despite the gifts of his physical health and strength, he hadn’t enough strength of spirit to see him through the inevitable twists and turns of an unexamined life. His addictions explain, but do not excuse, his inattention to the only things that really matter. Eldon realized, at the end, that he really wanted a connection with his heritage and with the land, and the boy, though he had reason to hate his father, showed just what kind of man he was becoming by honoring him, padding his grave with moss and boughs and sprinkling it over with tobacco. His upbringing and connection with the land developed reserves of generosity within himself that he could share when the world displayed too little. There is terrible pain in the world, but there is also grace.

The section of this novel that deals with Franklin bringing his father to his final resting place, finding his way in the woods, encountering a bear, fishing without line, hunting without a gun, the boy generates love. He is sixteen and a man in all the ways that matter.

The bare simplicity of the narrative, and the clarity of the language both hold a beauty that is rare in novels today and makes this a standout. The harsh reality of someone dying of drink is achingly real and truly described, as is the beauty and bounty of open forest. The relationship between the old man and the boy defines what sustains us in a world that too often feels outside our control. In the end, we are all is nourished, blessed even, by the strength their relationship.
"Feels good to miss things…it makes you know you’re living, that you touched something, that something touched you."
I listened to the audio production of this book, beautifully read by Tom Stechschulte, and published by Recorded Books. I highly recommend this book, this meditation, for centering oneself in a busy world and for reminding us of what is important.

In an interview with CBC Richard Wagamese says that this is his best novel, and that it may lead to another novel or two to flesh out the lives described within. To my thinking, the novel stands on its own, though I would love to see more of this author's work and reprise the feeling I had when I read/listened to it.

You can buy this book here: Shop Indie Bookstores

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