Redemption Never Expected

Sep 7, 2018

Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten of Lawrence, Kansas, believes Medicine Walk "should be in the pantheon" of father and son epics.
Credit Leslie VonHolten

This is bold, but I’m gonna say it: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese should be in the literary pantheon of great father and son epics.

Eldon and Frank Starlight—damaged father, strange son—travel deep into the wilderness, confronting bears and existential demons, and they even meet an oracle, the mountain woman Becka, who tells them what lies ahead. Sure, there are no loud, heroic moments. Instead, we see the grace and honor of Frank as the hero in this elegiac, quiet book.  

While reading Medicine Walk I felt echoes of the past on other sons. I thought of William Faulkner’s Henry Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! and how the legacy of greed and racism rotted his family. Or the Greek story of Telemachus, the standard-bearer for all loyal sons, and his wrath upon the suitors who threatened his father Odysseus’s place as King of Ithaca. I thought also of Cormac McCarthy’s poetic yet unsparing look into the darkest nights of the human soul in his novel The Road and a father’s fight for his son in an inherited apocalyptic earth.

In Medicine Walk, Frank Starlight—16, quiet, unschooled but wise—shoulders both the sins of his father and the historical weight of the genocide of his people. It’s a legacy Richard Wagamese spoke about and was even echoed within his own life. A member of the Ojibwa nation, Wagamese’s connection to his people was erased when he was 3 years old. As he said in a 2011 lecture, “I did not speak my first Ojibwa word or set foot on my traditional territory until I was 26. I did not know that I had a history, a culture, a source for spirituality, a cosmology, or a traditional way of living. I had no awareness that I belonged somewhere.”

Reconnecting to his Ojibwa heritage and telling his story through so many beautiful novels saved Wagamese’s life. In turn, Eldon telling his story to his son, and returning to his traditional ways, brings a redemption he never expected.

And Frank. Like Telemachus, Frank fights a wrathful god—instead of Poseidon, it’s alcohol. And unlike Faulkner’s Sutpen family, Frank—through the guidance of the old man—rises above the racism that pushes against him at every turn.

Like Cormac McCarthy’s father and son, Eldon and Frank inherited an apocalypse brought by colonialism and poverty, of stripping culture and language from a people and diminishing their cosmology and tradition. No one would fault young Frank if he had chosen to leave his father in that disgusting bed on the third floor. But perhaps Frank would tell us the same thing Telemachus would share: If he turned around, if he’d let his father fade into a bitter memory, and if he had gone back to his simple life in the country, he would have never known that his father’s story had also been his own story all this time.