Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese presents many lessons, and one of them is how it feels to be an outsider. All of us have this experience sometime, and for some of Wagamese’s characters, it was their permanent state.
The father-figure Bunky lives isolated in the rough backcountry of British Columbia. He is a classic loner as he raises the hero Franklin.
The dying biological father, Eldon Starlight, lives in a community of derelicts, marginalized in the mill town’s transient hotel. He is an outsider because of his ancestry. He explains to his son that he has Ojibwa heritage, but he belongs nowhere:
“We were just half-breeds. Ojibway. Mixed with Scot. McJibs. That’s what they called us. No one wanted us around. Not the whites. Not the Indians.”
He has no knowledge of either tradition nor does he know how to live in the forest but instead, he learned to get by on piece work at mills. He goes on to tell about a sketchy existence living in abandoned cabins. Most of all, he is an outsider to his son, whom he deserted. When he finds out he is dying of liver cancer, he tries to connect to this boy. He is an outsider, though, in another way now. As a dying man, he is in a group that excludes others, including his girlfriend Dierdre.
Franklin Starlight, the teenage hero, grows up an outsider first because he has no mother. Bunky teaches him forest survival, but not social skills like a mother might. In school, he is the only “Indian” kid, and “The school kids left him alone” (11). The school’s students live in town and have no experience of his life of hunting or cutting “a dying heifer out of a tangle of barbed wire” (11). Like Bunky, he is a loner. He is old for his age and quiet: “People found his silence odd and they avoided him, the obdurate Indian look of him unnerving even for a sixteen-year-old” (4). He has the look of an “Indian” or Ojibway, but none of the teachings nor the community life of a tribal member. In town, he is stereotyped and avoids people when he can. Another way he is an outsider is in his plainspoken insistence on truth. He speaks bluntly to his father about his neglect. His words are few but precise. He follows his own direction.
One of the more successful outsiders in the story is the half-Ojibway and half-Scot woman Becka Charlie, who also is plainspoken and a tough survivor. She is a good Samaritan who offers shelter from a storm and home-cooked biscuits. She knows both Ojibwa and Scots traditions and blends them in her herbal doctoring. She credits both her father and mother with raising her with traditional knowledge (p. 75). She thrives in her solitary place in the forest.
Finally, though, Eldon is the final outsider. He is the man riding into the wilderness to die in the warrior way. He will separate from the living. Every person must make this journey alone. In this last act, we all become outsiders.