Family Reads: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

Born out of a desire to get a family of book lovers to connect more over what they’re reading, Family Reads is an occasional feature where my mom, dad or sister and I read and discuss a book. 

Why Dad chose this book: It was in my to read on December 25 (WPF review?) and then it was picked for CBC Books group read for June with a high rating so I wanted to try it, also because it has high aboriginal content which I have a special interest in. I reserved the ebook but I wanted to follow along with the group and didn’t want to wait, so I had my bookstore daughter buy it for me.

Dad gives this book 4.5 stars and I give it 4 stars. Here’s our thoughts on how this story kept us interested, even though it didn’t sound too exciting based on the back description.

He wondered how time worked on a person. He wondered how he would look years on and what effect this history would have on him. He’d expected that it might have filled him but all he felt was emptiness and a fear that there would be nothing that could fill that void. (232)

When Dad and I tried to summarize this book to each other, we agreed we would have a hard time convincing someone Medicine Walk isn’t as dull as we made it sound. We both enjoyed the steady pacing and the considered prose. I also liked the dialogue, which has a natural cadence and dialect that conveys a stronger sense of character. Wagamese writes in a calm tone while still building anticipation in a tale that doesn’t have a lot of hills and valleys. The story fills you with wonder about the questions it proposes without being melodramatic.

At times the plot surprised us. Dad never expected the connection between the old man and Eldon. I didn’t expect Eldon’s heartbreaking war story or that he didn’t try to find his mother. We both struggled to sympathize with certain characters (Dad with Eldon, me with Franklin’s mother). Even though a large part of this is Eldon telling his story, it’s still hard to understand without having gone through the same experiences. We agreed it can be too easy to judge people. I also thought this was quite a man’s story, as Franklin’s mother is a key but undeveloped character who has no story of her own. The only named characters are Franklin and Eldon; this is really their story.

As we talked about the book, Dad searched for reviews on his iPad. He thought these descriptions hit the nail on the head:

To be alive is to be vulnerable to the myriad shocks and disappointments of the human condition, but Medicine Walk is also testament to the redemptive power of love and compassion. (Globe and Mail)

For Frank, a “hunt was a process.” And so is the way Wagamese pursues his story: biding his time, never rushing, calibrating each word so carefully that he too never seems to waste a shot. But he isn’t after the kill. Rather, it’s something more complicated — finding a way to honor or at least acknowledge a life ill-lived as it enters its final bitter days. (NYT)

If you handed us this book five years and asked if we thought we would enjoy it, we both would have said no. Now, though, we find we have a deeper appreciation for realistic stories about human relationships Medicine Walk is a particularly fine example of the genre.  

Have you read any works by Richard Wagamese? Are there any similar stories by Indigenous authors you would recommend?

Brief Thoughts: The Education of Augie Merasty by Joseph Auguste Merasty and David Carpenter

This memoir offers a courageous and intimate chronicle of life in a residential school. Now a retired fisherman and trapper, the author was one of an estimated 150,000 First Nations, Inuit, and Metis children who were taken from their families and sent to government- funded, church-run schools, where they were subjected to a policy of “aggressive assimilation.” As Augie Merasty recounts, these schools did more than attempt to mold children in the ways of white society. They were taught to be ashamed of their native heritage and, as he experienced, often suffered physical and sexual abuse. But, even as he looks back on this painful part of his childhood, Merasty’s sense of humour and warm voice shine through.

★★★★ | GoodReads | IndieBound | Chapters | Amazon

  • Over 1/3 of this slim volume consists of modern-day explaining and exploring by David Carpenter, an author Merasty was eventually put in contact with after writing to the “dean of the University of Saskatchewan”, inquiring about a co-writer to help him with his memoir. Carpenter’s writings allow Merasty’s story to become a fuller story by showing the long-term impact of residential schools. The afterword is perhaps the most heartbreaking part of the book, to learn that Merasty did not have the support to pull out of his downward spiral even after he worked so hard on creating his own life and recording his story. 
  • Merasty narrates in first person. Although Carpenter has tidied up and smoothed out Merasty’s words, his distinct voice remains. I felt as though I could be reading a transcript of a friend telling me his experiences. Merasty originally started writing as part of his testimony for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. His work is more a primary document than a literary memoir. Merasty’s real and raw perspective provides a valuable contribution to body of residential school memoirs. 
  • Merasty understands that he doesn’t need to write a detailed tell all in order to have his readers understand the horrors experienced by residential school attendees. His memoir never strays toward the graphic. There are times when reading a vivid account of a person’s experiences can be valuable, and all people have a right to share their experiences as they wish. There are times, however, when an account like Merasty’s – that explores and condemns the horrors but doesn’t require you to imagine them too closely – can be beneficial. You don’t necessarily need to have a clear full account to be moved someone’s story. Merasty’s memoir, therefore, is suitable for the faint-hearted or those new to the topic.
  • I found it somewhat comforting (not sure if that’s the right word given the subject) to read about the good people in the schools he remembers. In the first chapter, he describes all the people “who showed kindness and genuine care for us kids”, briefly mentioning ominous figures but dismissing them for the time being. Merasty encounters nasty beings, but his first chapter reminds you that there are some decent people in the world. 
  • The Education of Augie Merasty is a residential school memoir suitable for those new to the topic or those looking to read a first-hand account.

    “I have many more stories about all that transpired […]. But I sincerely hope that what I have related here will have some impact, so all that has happened in our school, and other schools in all parts of Canada – the abuse and terror in the lives of Indian children – does not occur ever again.” (86%)

      Review: Green Grass, Running Water by Thomas King

      Author: Thomas King
      Title: Green Grass, Running Water
      Format/Source: ebook/Library
      Published: March 1993
      Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
      Length: 469 pages
      Genre: Humour + magical realism
      Why I Read: CBC Books’ pick for March; want to read more Indigenous literature
      Read If You’re: Appreciative of a different sort of humour; interested in Indigenous stories
      Quote: “I am very sleepy, says Thought Woman, and then she goes back to sleep. Hee-hee, says that River. Hee-hee.” (198).
      Rating:  ★★★★ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

      Green Grass, Running Water is the CBC Books’ Goodreads group pick for this month, and another book for my Indigenous Canadian authors list. Green Grass, Running Water first came on my radar a few years ago, during my time tutoring. Some students came to me with papers on the story. I don’t remember what the papers were about (I think they were comparative?) but somehow, I didn’t get the impression that this is a funny book. I expected a deep, serious story, full of vast symbolism. Well, it’s definitely full of symbolism, but certainly not as solemn as I expected. Humorous satire plays a huge role in this book.

      “Why are you talking to animals? says the little man. This is a Christian ship. Animals don’t talk. We got rules.” (125).

      I might even recommend it for someone who wants a laugh (if they’re ready to work for it). However, I wonder how much of the humour depends on understanding some of the symbolism, or the cultural/historical context. My advantage came from the Aboriginal spirituality courses I took in university. I think without that, the Coyote and four Elders threads would have been beyond my understanding (and that’s just one major example – plenty of less significant bits would have gone by me as well.)
      I made many small notes whenever something in the story clicked for me. There are many things I understood only a little bit, things I recognized I didn’t understandd (the significance of the puddles…), and probably plenty more things I didn’t even know I didn’t understand (a good example of this is the names of the bit characters – Jennifer’s posts in the Goodreads discussion brought this light). So, I was very pleased with myself when something, even if it was obvious, did click! This is a book that could benefit from multiple readings. But, I think some outside research would be necessary to understand a lot of it, for those of us who aren’t history buffs. I may hit up a reader’s guide. King has said understanding every reference isn’t critical to understanding the story, but now that I know they’re there, I want to understand them!
      Because there is so much going on, much of it without context, I wonder – what’s the author’s purpose in writing this sort of story? How much will his readers get out of it? What does he want them to get out of it? But then I think “Screw it! Why am I always asking this question?” Even though I don’t think authorial intent is important to consider when understanding a story, I guess I think that if I know the author’s intent, I could garner something from a book I didn’t really understand. When I don’t understand something seems to be the only time I ask the question…if I get something out of a book, it doesn’t matter what the author intended – that book succeeded for me in some way. I wrote a bit more about this early in the Goodreads discussion (I wondered how much work should an author leave to the reader in understanding the cultural and historical backgrounds of a novel). Anyway. That’s this review’s tangent for you.
      This is an Aboriginal story that touches on a lot of ‘issues’ without those ‘issues’ being the main purpose of the story. It goes beyond specific tragic circumstances (for example, residential schools abuse, alcoholism, etc.) to explore a broader picture of Indigenous people trying to find their place in today’s world, a balance between tradition and modernity. I think this quote sums up what the policies and attitudes Indigenous people are left to face today:

      “Who’d have guessed there would still be Indians kicking around in the twentieth century?” (121)

      I’d be remiss to not mention that this book is chock-full of great characters. My favourites were Alberta, a no-nonsense character I admired, Lionel, who’s really trying, and Babo, who understands more of what’s going on than the rest of us, probably.

      The Bottom Line: Even though a lot of this story probably went over my head, I enjoyed the story lines and characters.

       Further Reading: 

      Review: Monkey Beach by Eden Robinson

      Author: Eden Robinson
      Title: Monkey Beach
      Format/Source: ebook/Kobo
      Published: April 2002
      Publisher: Mariner Books
      Length: 384 pages
      Genre: Contemporary fiction (magical realism?)
      Why I Read: CBC Books group read for February
      Read If You’re: A fan of B.C. as a setting; interested in Indigenous literature 
      Rating:  ★★★½ [ratings guide]
      Links: GoodReads IndieBound Chapters | Amazon

      One of my goals this year is to read more books by Indigenous Canadian authors. I’m happy this book was chosen for CBC Books’ February group read because I hadn’t heard of it before. I jotted down my own thoughts, then went through the GoodReads discussion and added responses to some comments. When I’m quoting someone else, it’s from that group discussion. Here’s the link if you want to check it out.

      I really enjoyed this book but I’m having a hard time writing about it! I just like most everything – the mood, the setting, the focus on culture and spirituality, Lisa’s narrative voice. I didn’t like the ending. That’s pretty much all you need to know. Please humour me as I try to explain 😉

      First and foremost, I love the atmosphere of this novel. I’m having a hard time putting it into words. The foggy atmosphere is created (for me) by the setting and tone/mood of the narrator. I love the British Columbia setting. I haven’t read many novels set in B.C., but Monkey Beach brought to mind A Tale for the Time Being. The dense forests coming to meet the vast ocean naturally creates a moody atmosphere. The setting helps to fuel the atmosphere of the novel. MJ wrote “I am not sure that I would call the mood of the book melancholic but it definitely had an unearthliness or other worldish aspect to it – most likely because the book was filled with so many references to the spirit world, the afterworld, ghosts, mythic creatures and living creatures (birds, seals, whales, crows, snakes, cats) all who seemed to have aptitudes and impacts far exceeding what non-native people usually attribute to these same creatures.” Well-said! I also enjoyed Lisa’s narrative voice, though it took me a bit to really settle into the reminiscent style. I didn’t realize most of the story would take place in the past. The mood felt like one shrouded in fog, I think one could describe the novel, at least in part, as an exploration of how we deal with different types of loss. The melancholic, distant feeling comes from looking back into the past, to those difficult memories.

      I push myself out of bed and go to the open window, but they luanch themselves upward, cawing. Morning light slants over the mountains behind the reserve. A breeze coming down the channel makes my curtains flap limply. Ripples sparkle in the shallows as a seal bobs its head. (1)

      I understood I had just had a vision, but I was afraid to think about what it meant. I went downstairs and waited until Jimmy woke an hour later. I followed him onto the porch as he took a bag of stale bread out to feed the crows for good luck. The crows fluttered around his feet. He seemed puzzled that I was watching him do what he’d done for years. (64% of part two)

      Family relationships are at the heart of this story. Jane from BC writes, “I feel that Robinson is doing a great job of giving us a sense of place and the dynamics amongst the characters. So many sibling relationships that have been introduced and then the relationship between the generations.” Agreed! Many types of familial relationships are explored, both horizontal (siblings) and vertical (parents/aunts/etc.).

      All major characters in the novel are Haisla. Indigenous spirituality plays a significant role, and was one of the most interesting parts of the story for me. This is where the ‘magical realism’ comes from, but I never thought of using that term until I read it in the discussion. If someone asked me for some magical realism to read, I wouldn’t recommend this book. Aboriginal experiences that one may often hear of, such as residential schools, play a less major role in the story, because Lisa herself wasn’t affected by them. One scene in particular (when Lisa stands up to a group of white guys and is almost attacked) stood out for me, though, and was tough to read. In my hometown, I hear too much about missing and murdered Indigenous women. There are too many of them, but what’s almost as sad is that while not every Indigenous women is going to be attacked, a large majority have experiences such as what Lisa had, some likely on a regular basis. For them it’s just a part of everyday life.

      One struggle I had while reading this book was keeping track of Lisa’s age. I was very happy to read I wasn’t the only one with that problem! Her experiences are so much older than she is. I thought she was three or four years older than she actually was when she started smoking. Specific ages are rarely mentioned and I kept losing track. I was always surprised when an age was mentioned. It was always far younger than I thought. I wonder if this uncertainty about ages was intentional on the author’s part? I suppose you could look at it as a comment on memory, as some people in the discussion mentioned. I think also part of my issue was that I thought the Lisa we meet at the beginning of the story is also older, but she’s still young. I was surprised to find her reminiscing take us up to Jimmy’s decision to go fishing. I wasn’t expecting that.

      The main qualm I have with the story is the narrative skipping over critical events (and just as I’m typing that I’ve thought – maybe it’s because Lisa doesn’t want to recall those awful, specific moments? But that’s beside the point here). Usually this type of narration really bothers me, and I was kind of bothered…but only because I usually am? Hah, what I guess I mean is. – the skipping over major events didn’t actively bother me until I thought about it afterwards – “Hey, how come I didn’t get to read about that? I’d rather read about it than find out in casually dropped comments!” I still enjoyed the book. So, I only became annoyed at the skipping when I thought about it because I enjoyed all the stuff I did read. It didn’t feel like I had missed out (though if I followed my usual reactions/logic, it felt like I did). My note during reading when this happened for the first time was “AUGH do I or do I not hate this convention?” (beginning of part two). Later notes include “not a fan of skipping big parts”, “boo why’s all the action off the page”, “another big off stage moment” but the last note is “I WANT ANSWERS but I’m kind of content”. A related note is that the reader doesn’t know much about many of the characters background, which I suppose is realistic given Lisa’s age. So much of your family’s relationships play out before your born. Michelle noted,  “What is interesting about this book is that we are left to fill in some of the stories of many of the characters- we know them, but not everything about them.” I think because we can fill in the gaps on our own, skipping the main scenes doesn’t bother me tooooo much. This ambiguity is why I’m giving it 3.5 stars here and 4 on GoodReads. If it bothered me more, I’d be going down to 3.

      Please note: The next paragraph discusses the novel’s conclusion. Skip to The Bottom Line to avoid.

      I don’t mind if characters die towards a novel’s conclusion and I don’t mind if the protagonist’s situation ends the same as it was (i.e, I just don’t want to see them worse off). Can you imagine really if Jimmy was dead? That’s the impression I got, but how awful that would be for Lisa. Jimmy’s death could be just another part of her story. It could have been portrayed like the others deaths. Because of my wish for Lisa not to lose another significant person in her life, I’m on the side that Jimmy lives. I don’t like that it’s so ambiguous, though.

      The Bottom Line: A sad story, perhaps, but full of heart, featuring thoughtful and soothing (somehow, it was soothing to me) prose and beautiful locations. An intense examination of an Indigenous family. The conclusion may be difficult for some readers to accept but I still recommend it.

      Further Reading: