NEAL GILBERT REDMAN
Review of Richard Wagamese's Medicine Walk
One of my favorite drawing techniques makes use of negative space: the entire page is shaded by charcoal, and the rest of the process is spent erasing, defining the shapes, objects, or persons within.
Some writers use much the same process, defining their characters and the world they inhabit with simple, declarative sentences that are more descriptive than whole hosts of adjectives and adverbs. John Steinbeck and Richard Bausch are both notable authors who were able to do this well, and Richard Wagamese demonstrates the same capability in Medicine Walk.
The result is surprisingly immersive. With the style’s focus on what is—the lines etching that character’s face, that breeze sighing through the pine needles—the reader is able to more readily inhabit the world of the main character, often referred to as “the kid.” From the opening lines, we’re able to take on the kid’s perspective like it is our own. “He walked the old mare out of the pen and led her to the gate that opened out into the field. There was a frost from the night before, and they left tracks behind them.”
Our eyes full of the trail left by his and the mare’s passing, we begin to see and understand more and more of the kid’s life and what he appreciates. He is sixteen, but acts like an adult. He lives in the mountains of British Columbia on a rural farm that is a little rough and tumble. The old man he lives with is apparently not his father, but sure acts like one. And the kid is about to leave to visit his real father: they aren’t particularly close, but because his father is extremely ill, the kid feels obliged to go and visit him.
The novel unfolds from there, in easily familiar lines. The kid’s father works intermittently but drinks constantly, and the only person who somewhat seems to care about him is the prostitute he sees on the regular. But he’s going to die soon—his liver is failing—and he needs the kid to take him to a ridge some forty miles away in the backcountry and bury him in the warrior way. More importantly, he wants to tell the kid about his life, even if he’s only intermittently been a part of the kid’s. “It’s all I got to give ya,” he says (p. 23). It’s not enough to make up for years of neglect, as the kid observes, but still he finds himself drawn in.
The broad details of the story are hardly new, but it’s still a story that deserves telling. More, as this short novel emphasizes time and again, it’s having a story told and how it’s told that’s the important thing. A tale awakened in an attentive reader or audience has a power and weight all of its own.
And how enjoyably does Richard Wagamese awaken this story in his reader: the opening chapter is told so lovingly, brimming with adoration for the backcountry the kid rides through. This collides directly with the opening of chapter two, when the kid arrives at the town where his father lives: “He could see the grey-white spume from the stacks before he crested the final ridge and when he topped it the town lay spread out along the edges of the river like a bruise” (p. 6). The two are so characterized by the places they live that you almost don’t need the details of how the father has let the kid down.
If there is any possible complaint about this book, it’s that we almost have too many of those details. Some of the history between the father and son is absolutely necessary, but a little impatience can be felt with some of the early middle chapters of the novel that focus on this part of the relationship. We know we’re going to learn more about the father—one gathers that there is something more to him than the sorry alcoholic we first meet—and that can leave a reader wanting to get to those parts of the story more quickly. Ironically, Wagamese sets up the lives of the kid and his father so well in those early chapters and interactions that they make any further explanation almost superfluous.
Even so, there are some sections the novel absolutely could not do without. One of the best occurs during a memory of the kid’s ninth birthday, when his foster father brought him in special to visit his father, only to find the man dancing about drunkenly with a random woman. The foster father escorts the kid back outside the house, and what we see could easily be the unifying symbol for the whole novel:
. . . the kid stood there and stared at the house. It seemed to sag like it was tired, as though it had borne weight for far too long and needed to slump to the ground. There were cracks in all the windows. Shingles had come loose and blown away in the wind. Down the one side was a tangle of lilacs, un-pruned and ramshackle, old and uncared for, scraping against the side of the house, and there was only one bloom. It sat high at the point farthest from the house. A small dab of colour. It made the house more sullen, bleaker, and the kid wanted to pluck it and carry it somewhere it would not feel alone, save it maybe, in a jar in the sunlight, and he felt the tears come . . . . (121)
Always honest, always well told, Wagamese never dabbles in the saccharine. Though the kid comes to know his father’s story—and to finally learn who his mother was—father and son are never completely reconciled. But a certain understanding is reached, and with that understanding is the capability of feeling loss. The kid’s father is a failure, but might not have been, if he would have only believed in himself.
There’s a certain sad beauty to the father’s life, and while part of the kid might not want anything to do with the man that has hurt him so badly, he also cannot be without him, either—that small dab of color is something to hold onto, even if it makes some things more sullen and bleak.
Neal is an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Minnesota Duluth and a graduate of the Vermont College of Fine Arts MFA program. He loves all types of writing, but particularly fiction writing that has a strong voice. If it includes some speculative elements (such as magical realism), that's even better.