“Medicine Walk,” a novel by the indigenous Canadian writer Richard Wagamese, tells the story of Frank Starlight, a 16-year-old Indian boy without a mother and who has an absent, alcoholic, Native American father, Eldon Starlight.
Frank was raised from birth by a farmer, an older man who lives in isolation near the wilderness in British Columbia. Even though he is not an Indian, the farmer raises the boy in the Indian way, teaching him to hunt and fish, to live off the land, and to practice the Indian way, what we might call mindfulness.
The boy goes to school, but his heart is in the wilderness. As soon as it is possible, he leaves school and continues as a true son of the old farmer. Over the years the boy sees his biological father only a couple of times at the farm and two or three times in the near-by mill town. The meetings in town do not go well, especially the one when Frank celebrates his tenth birthday.
His father Eldon had promised to stay sober and to take the boy on a fishing picnic. The trip starts out okay but ends up with Eldon so drunk that 10-year-old Frank has to drive the pickup home, which is not a problem for him as he has been driving a tractor since he was eight. Frank goes back to the farm leaving his father with a short note: “You lied to me.”
The central story in the novel occurs when Frank is sixteen and his dad asks for a favor. The father, who is dying of the complications of his alcoholism, wants the son to take him into the wilderness and bury him like an Indian warrior, at a particular place, sitting up, looking across the valley at the rising sun.
In spite of his anger, his rage at his father for abandoning him, Frank agrees to carry the weakened and dying Eldon into the wilderness. Frank puts his pack and Eldon on his horse and takes off into the wilderness.
The father wants to know where the food is. Frank tells him what the old man taught him, “Everything a guy would need is here...You gotta spend time gatherin’ what you need. What you need to keep you strong. He called it a medicine walk.” In the course of this extended odyssey, Frank and Eldon find shelter with a hermetic mountain woman, Becka.
She not only feeds them and takes them in, but also as they leave gives Frank a rough hide bundle of medicine to use to soothe his father’s suffering. Desperately wanting to know where he came from and who his mother was, Frank, frustrated by his dying and drunken father says, “I can’t know what he believes. He talks a lot, but I still got no sense of him. So far it’s all been stories.”
Becka then teaches the boy the importance of stories. As she puts it, “Who’s to say how much of anythin’ we are? Seems to me the truth of us is where it can’t be seen. Comes to dyin’, I guess we all got a right to what we believe.” Later she says, “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.”
Eventually, before Eldon dies and Frank buries him, the boy hears his father’s story, the origin of his drinking, his courtship of his mother, how she died and why the old man took him in as an infant and has raised him as a son.
In this well written, poignant novel, Richard Wagamese holds our attention with beautiful descriptions of the Canadian northwest wilderness and with telling portraits of the scrub hard life of the region’s poor mining men and their women. The author, using prose that borders on poetry, has one of his characters say, “Poetry nothin’ but a man feelin’ what’s there anyhow.” He brings us into a world of broken love, disrupted family, death, grief, and loss, where the courage to forgive and accept redeems the boy and his dreams.
“Medicine Walk” by Richard Wagamese is a novel that rewards the reader with tears and joy.