Task: Read a book in which a character of color goes on a spiritual journey.
Here’s a confession. I wish I were more outdoorsy. Or, more accurately, I wish I was as outdoorsy as the fictional version of myself. I’m from a beautiful part of the world, and I did grow up within easy driving distance of the Buffalo River, which my husband and I try to float as often as we can. There were always blue green hills rising and dipping around the horizons of my childhood. I’ve hiked up and down my hills and I’ve crawled around inside them in an old tee shirt, muddy knee pads and helmet with a headlamp. Give me enough time and eventually I will get a tent pitched. So it’s not like I’m completely outdoors-illiterate, but, truthfully, I would be worthless in a survival situation, and I don’t like to spend too much time away indoor plumbing.
I do love to read about people with serious outside skills, though, and Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese delivers on that in a big way. Its taciturn protagonist Franklin Starlight can rig a night line, drop a grouse with a rock, shoo off a grizzly, and set up a shelter without even realizing he’s doing it. Wagamese can also write the hell out of a landscape. Medicine Walk is set in the mountains of British Columbia, and it’s some of the most beautiful nature writing I’ve ever read.
Franklin was adopted by a character referred to as “the old man,” though his identity in flashback sequences is pretty immediately obvious (which is fine – this isn’t a thriller) and raised on a farm out in the backcountry. His father, Eldon Starlight (known as Twinkles to the town’s bar regulars), is dying of cirrhosis, and asks Franklin to help him get to a remote ridge where he can die in peace and be buried in the traditional Ojibwe style, sitting up facing the east. Along the way, Eldon shares his life story (the surname Starlight signifies storyteller) and the three prongs of tragedy that left him drunk and alone and led to Franklin’s existence and abandonment.
Franklin, who has very little use for conversation, emotion, or any sort of social impulse, is about as opaque a character as I’ve ever met. That said, his relationship with his adopted father is illustrated through some of the most touching parts of the book. When nine-year-old Frank returns from his first solo trip into the wilderness (a four-day affair) with some small game and a deer, the old man grins, claps him on the back, and shows him how to cook it. It’s one of the sweetest scenes I’ve read in a while. But Frank is pretty understandably hostile toward his biological father. There are a number of flashbacks in which Eldon ruins important occasions with his alcoholism – the worst being a birthday fly-fishing trip, which is a train wreck in slow motion. You know exactly how it’s going to play out, but you can’t help but hope that it won’t go that direction.
What Franklin does communicate through Wagamese’s narration is a bone-deep love of the land, Franklin’s most tangible connection to his Ojibwe roots. The old man is not Native, and Eldon himself spent very little time exploring his own heritage during his peripatetic childhood spent chasing work from one logging camp to the next. Frank clearly hungers for some sort of connection to his history – personal and cultural – and his conversations on the trail with his dying father finally put some pieces of the puzzle together for him. He has a vision of a group of Ojibwe men and women traveling through the valley at the very end of the book, which I took to mean that he did ultimately gain some connection to the past by learning more about his father. For his part, Eldon is seeking forgiveness on a number of fronts before he dies. Franklin is a pretty tough customer on this front, and never verbally forgives his father. At one point, he bluntly points out that it’s not for him to absolve Eldon for a number of his past sins.
Those two parallel emotional journeys are far more fraught with tension than the physical journey. Frank knows his mountains as well as I know my Dewey ranges, and the wilderness itself doesn’t present danger. What it does present is an opportunity for some of the most lyrical writing I’ve read in a long time. I found this to be a calming, wild, and lonely read that I thoroughly enjoyed. I hope to read more of Richard Wagamese soon, and I also hope to spend more time by myself outside. This book makes a powerful case for the importance of solitude in a wild place.