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