A Cabin in the Woods

Sep 26, 2018

Chief Oshkosh Camp

This is Tom Weso, and this is High Plains Public Radio’s book club. In the featured novel for this program, Richard Wagamese’s Medicine Walk, the deep forests of British Columbia provide the setting. In those forests are cabins.

The book is about the idea of home, and forest cabins are the best places that Franklin Starlight, the hero, visits. One is the small frame house where Bunky raises Franklin like his own son. Other homes are simple log cabins.

As a boy, I lived in the forest of the Menominee Indian Nation of Wisconsin, where I am a member. I recognize these simple cabins that provide shelter and sometimes become homes.

In the novel, Eldon Starlight describes the abandoned cabins that his people, mixed Ojibwa and Scots people, found as shelter. Where I grew up, loggers built temporary camps and abandoned them when the lumber was cut. Sometimes abandoned hunting lodges remained after the fall hunting season ended.  If someone moved into a remote cabin like this, no one would know.

One of the best examples in the book Medicine Walk is the “Old trapper’s cabin a few miles off,” where Franklin takes his ailing father to get out of the rain (71). To his surprise, when they reached their destination, it is inhabited. Wagamese describes this home as a “dilapidated cabin gone grey with age and an open shed canted to one side. There was a feeble curl of smoke from the chimney.”

That smoke comes from a temporary resident, Becka Charlie, who lives there alone. Yet in this humble home, she has shelter, heat, food, and herbal supplies for doctoring. She has all she needs and is generous to these travelers.

The idea of someone moving into an abandoned place and getting away with it might seem unusual on the plains. Everyone can see a house from miles away and what goes on,  even the laundry hanging on the line. In the forest, my family stayed in unoccupied stretches of the forest several times. We lived in a log cabin a few miles north of Keshena, Wisconsin, just south of Cheese Box Curve. 

I was three or four, in the 1950s. I can remember this being a happy time.  I spent my days playing in the melting ice and mud in the front yard among the black-eyed Susan daisies.  My older brother and stepfather spent their days hunting or fishing for dinner.  We ate a lot of squirrels, porcupines, and fresh-caught trout.  We hauled water from a nearby spring and used kerosene lanterns for light.

This was not unusual. A man suspected of burglary lived across the river from my mother in the 1970s. He found a sheltered spot between two boulders, dug down between them, and rigged a roof. He lived there several seasons before he moved on. Subsistence living in the forest is not impossible or unusual, and a simple but effective shelter can be put together fairly quickly.

The real center of a shelter, though, is not just boards and chinking. The emotional support Bunky gives to Franklin in Medicine Walk is the true structure for a good home, whether he is a biological father or not. This is one of many lessons in Richard Wagamese’s novel.

I am Tom Weso from the Menominee Reservation of Wisconsin by way of Lawrence, Kansas.