With the tremendous success of his bestseller Indian Horse still in our minds, Richard Wagamese offers us Medicine Walk, a beautifully and painfully honest novel about a father and son’s last days together.
Nearing death after years of hard drinking, Eldon Starlight asks his sixteen-year-old son Frank to take him to a place he knows in the backwoods to die, and then to bury him there. To this point Eldon has spent little time with Frank, and for Frank that time has consisted of hurtful experiences and broken promises, which he can’t shake. He has been raised instead by an older man and from him has learned how to live in BC’s wilderness. But he agrees to his father’s request, and they set off on a journey of physical and emotional struggles and discoveries.
The journey is the “medicine walk,” and it’s not just Eldon’s last effort for healing; it also is Frank’s chance to treat pains from the meetings with his father and unanswered questions about his mother. And, we learn quickly that walking and telling stories can be two of the most powerful forms of healing and treatment.
The importance of stories — yes, of their content, but also of creating them, of telling them to others and ourselves, of listening to and interpreting them, of realizing that some should have been told earlier, and of learning why some have certain tellers, audiences, and times to be told — lies at the heart of Medicine Walk, and with stunning grace Wagamese reveals this importance to us and makes it clear to Frank and Eldon.
This importance is not just the force that inspires the novel’s scenes; stories are the source on which characters live in its world. Becka, the one person Frank and Eldon meet on their journey, helps Frank to understand this point as they watch Eldon, who is sleeping fitfully, shivering despite being close to the cabin’s fire. Frank wishes aloud that he had learned much earlier the stories his father is telling him only now:
“I get that some things take
some workin’ up to. But he
could die tonight fer all I know.”
His father moaned and the
kid regarded him. “He don’t
seem much of a warrior to
me.” He sipped at the tea.
“Who’s to say how much of
anythin’ we are?” Becka said.
“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 be
“I can’t know what he be
lieves. He talks a lot, but I still
got no sense of him. So far it’s
all been stories.”
She only nodded. “It’s all we
are in the end. Our stories.”
Frank wants answers, he wants the one story that connects gaps in his past and helps him figure out who he is and who his father is, but only with time and listening will he understand that there have been challenges in telling stories that make Eldon who he is. To learn what these challenges are — and what they mean for his father and him — Frank must finish the medicine walk with Eldon.