Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Gettin’ half killed once’s gotta be better’n bein’ half alive forever.

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Medicine Walk tells the story of a boy and his estranged father. 16-year-old Frank is an amazing kid; he knows how to do everything. From the time he was old enough to learn, he was taught how to work on the farm and survive in the woods. But his father wasn’t the one who taught him these things. Frank has been living with ‘the old man’ for as long as he can remember; he is the only father Frank knows. They live alone on the farm, and Frank has grown up to appreciate hard work, nature, and quiet.

Alone. He’d never known lonely. If he put his head to it at all he couldn’t work a definition to the word. It sat in him undefined and unnecessary like algebra; land and moon and water summing up the only equation that lent scope to his world, and he rode through it fleshed out and comfortable with the feel of the land around him like the refrain of an old hymn. It was what he knew. It was what he needed.

As the years of his childhood go by, he comes to learn that the man who drops by from time to time is his ‘real’ father, and he begins to have questions about who he is and where he comes from. The answers to these questions don’t come until he’s 16 and his father, Eldon, has asked him to come and see him for the last time. He wants Frank to take him out into the country to die, and along the way he tells his story to Frank. A story that causes Eldon so much pain that he has chosen to numb it all these years with alcohol rather than tell it. Until now.

It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.

There are three parts to the story Eldon has to tell. The first is his childhood with his mother after his father was killed in WWII. The second is his own experience in the Korean War with his good friend Jimmy. The third is about Frank’s mother. As a raging alcoholic and neglectful parent, Eldon doesn’t have a lot going for him, but hearing the story of his life, we can’t help but feel his pain while simultaneously shaking our heads at what he has lost and the decisions he has made. How can you not feel for someone who goes through life believing he is the cause for the loss of everyone he loved?

Sad’s not a bad thing unless it gets a hold of you and won’t let go.

At times, Frank listens patiently to his father, at other times he rails against his father’s choices. He longs to know his mother and his past. But, it’s his connection with the old man that keeps him steady. Unlike Eldon, Frank has a place, and a person, to call home.

He raised a hand to the idea of his father and mother and a line of people he had never known, then mounted the horse and rode back through the glimmer to the farm where the old man waited, a deck of cards on the scarred and battered table.

It sounds grim, but the writing is so beautiful that it just pulls you along and before you know it the book is done; gut-wrenching but hopeful. One that leaves you feeling very grateful that there are people in the world like the old man.

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Richard Wagamese is one of Canada’s foremost Native authors and storytellers. To learn more about his other works and his awards and recognition (which are considerable) visit his website.

Richard Wagamese discusses Medicine Walk in this interview with Shelagh Rogers on CBC Radio.

How a library helped Richard Wagamese become a writer. (Interview with Candy Palmater on CBC Radio.)

“… Richard may never have become a writer, were it not for the kindness of a group of librarians in St. Catherines, Ontario, where he stumbled into the public library at the age of 16, seeking shelter and refuge from a life on the streets.”

Medicine Walk is my 2nd review for the 20 10 Books of Summer, hosted by Cathy@746Books.

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28 thoughts on “Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

  1. Ioana @ booksreenchanted says:

    This is definitely one for my TBR Naomi, thank you so much for the wonderful review as always. One of my goals more recently has been to discover and read more Native American authors, and as always I am so excited to learn about those writing from Canada from you.

    • Naomi says:

      Thanks Valorie! I agree – I especially love the story about how the library changed his life. He’s sounds like an amazing person, really.

    • Naomi says:

      Surely Richard Wagamese is available down there by now. Please tell me he is!

      Yes, there should be an app like that for all of us, that you can just set to whichever country you’re in. Know anyone in the industry? 😉

  2. Jessica says:

    This sounds so interesting! At first, I thought this was a nonfiction book and was a little confused, haha – that’s what I get for reading reviews before I drink my morning coffee!

  3. lailaarch says:

    This sounds really good, Naomi. I’m currently trying not to add anything to my TBR for a week (or more!) just to see if it can be done. 🙂 But I will keep this one in mind for the future! Lovely review.

  4. FictionFan says:

    Another one that sounds great – you do find so many interesting books that are a bit off the beaten track. And I have to say those are three great covers too – any one of them would at least have tempted me to read the blurb. 🙂

  5. Brian says:

    I love how thorough you are in your blog with links to CBC interviews and stories and author websites. I had heard those interviews previously and thoroughly enjoyed them.

    • Naomi says:

      Sometimes writing my reviews can take a while, because I get all caught up in reading about the book and the author. At times, I have to reign myself in and just be content with a few links.
      Thanks for letting me know that you appreciate it! Makes it worth my while. 🙂

    • Naomi says:

      It’s a quiet book. Very somber. The war is only a small part of Eldon’s story, so you don’t have to worry about there being a lot about the war in it.

  6. ebookclassics says:

    While I really admired Richard Wagamese’s writing, I really did not like Eldon. Despite all of his hardships, I thought he had plenty of opportunities to turn his life around, but he continued to be selfish, irresponsible and feel sorry for himself. However, I really liked Frank and his relationship with the Old Man. I wish there had been more about their relationship than Eldon and his bad decisions in life. Did you think Frank forgave Eldon at the end of the story?

    • Naomi says:

      Eldon *was* hard to like. I don’t think I ever really liked him, but at times I felt bad for him. It was frustrating, though, to think of all the times he could have turned himself around but didn’t.
      I don’t think Frank needed to forgive Eldon – I think Eldon needed to forgive himself. I didn’t get a sense of any real forgiveness – just maybe relief on Eldon’s part to get his story out and acceptance on Frank’s part that this is the way it happened and all he gets to know of his family?
      I really love the old man. 🙂

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