“There is such a powerful eloquence in silence. True genius is knowing when to say nothing, to allow the experience, the moment itself, to carry the message, to say what needs to be said. Words are less important, less effective than feeling. When you can sit in perfect silence with someone, you truly know how to communicate.”
Acclaimed Canadian author Richard Wagamese died while writing this book. It is a draft sequel to Medicine Walk. There were some clues and notes he left behind about the missing final chapters, so the book still has a satisfying conclusion and is in no way diminished because it is was not completed. I found Wagamese set up the novel so well, that I could enjoy imagining the way it would end. I’m glad the publisher didn’t try to finish it for him, I’m not sure anyone could mimic his beautiful writing style anyway. This is a profoundly moving novel about the redemptive power of love, mercy, and compassion which was building towards a dramatic ending.
In both Starlight and Medicine Walk, the author’s love of the land and indigenous connection with nature is supremely evident. The main character Frank Starlight, leads a simple and contemplative existence which is upended by a woman and her daughter on the run from a harrowing life of violence. They are fleeing from committing a desperate act of survival when Frank takes them in. Over time, he introduces them to the land and patiently teaches them the skills that have allowed him not only to survive but to find communion with the world. Gradually, this accidental family changes Starlight and Emmy in ways they never imagined. But Emmy’s abusive ex isn’t content to just let her go. He wants revenge and is hunting her down.
Affected by the Sixties Scoop, Wagamese was Ojibwe, living in Kamloops, BC. “After being taken from his family by the Children’s Aid Society, he was raised in foster homes in northwestern Ontario before being adopted, at age nine, by a St. Catharines Presbyterian family that refused to allow him to maintain contact with his First Nations heritage and identity. Of this experience he wrote: ‘The wounds I suffered went far beyond the scars on my buttocks.’ The beatings and abuse he endured in foster care led him to leave home at 16, seeking to reconnect with indigenous culture. Then he lived on the street, abusing drugs and alcohol, and was imprisoned several times. During this time he also began frequenting public libraries, at first for shelter and later to read. (Wikipedia).”
The loss of Wagamese weighs keenly on me as I remember reading his amazing book Ragged Company that features homeless characters who win the lottery, and I look forward to reading Indian Horse which was a finalist for Canada Reads and is now a movie on CBC Gem. It’s sad to think there won’t be more–his writing is a healing gift.
“When hands on the street are held out, it isn’t always alms that are beggared; it’s life, contact, touch, generosity of spirit…”
Ragged Company is about a group of homeless people who win the lottery (13.5 million) but can’t collect because they don’t have a fixed address! It’s been on my to-read pile for ages but I bumped it to the top after the recent passing of this great Canadian author Richard Wagamese. Like Medicine Walk, this book is a real, elegant, earthy, funny, and gentle story well told. Parts of it are delicious reflective prose and though it isn’t a quick read, I did fly through it and couldn’t put it down. It is deeply compelling and healing as a human reflection on the meaning of ‘home’ but also is intriguing to see what happens to people when they suddenly have an unlimited source of money and go from getting enough for each day to having enough for each day. Wagamese explores the development of the inner lives of four homeless people, as well as the lonely jaded journalist who befriends them and the lawyer who helps them. They become a rather odd ragged company, but isn’t that what all of us are in the end?
What does it mean to belong, to be needed, to be free, and to be in community? After reading this book I feel even more strongly that when giving to the homeless it should always include a gesture of human connection as well…get a name, have a brief conversation, give a blessing–do not allow them to be invisible. Do not make assumptions about them or consider them all alike–they each have a unique past and a story, as do we all. Wagamese turns our conventional ideas upside down and makes us think in new ways about winners and losers, rich and poor, bondage and freedom, love and friendship, value and worthlessness, support and community, faithfulness and rejection…all through a powerful story. Rest in peace Richard Wagamese. You have taught us that we are story and we are grateful.
The New York Times Obituary
After reading The Orenda, I promised myself I would read some other First Nations authors and the two I picked were Thomas King and Richard Wagamese. Recently, hearing a CBC The Next Chapter podcast about Richard Wagamese’s new novel ‘Medicine Walk’, I decided to start with it because I was so touched by Wagamese’s personal story.
In a candid interview with Shelagh Rogers, Wagamese is very open about the fact that because he is an alcoholic, he became alienated from his sons. Those years are lost and he is trying to find healing in his personal life. Part of how he does this is through his writing. Medicine Walk is a beautifully written and moving story about a father and son. It is as lyrically and respectfully written as Boyden’s epic work, just as powerful, but simpler and gentler.
Franklin accepts his dying father’s last request to take him to the BC interior where he wants to be buried “in the warrior way”. It sets both of them on a journey of discovery – an encounter with the past and with the nature of their relationship. Franklin is the most self-contained mature sixteen year old I have ever come across in a novel. It was such a pleasure getting to know this remarkable character. Written in sure, clear prose, much of this novel is so real and down to earth, yet so eloquent. A redemptive, masterful story. “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.”
Wagamese’s earlier novel Indian Horse, winner of the Canada Reads People’s Choice poll in 2013, is now definitely on my to-read list as well. It’s about residential schools and how one boy finds hope through playing ice hockey.