The hand of the artist has become one with the hand of God, and our own lives are touched by both.
I come late to the books of Ojibwa writer Richard Wagamese, but his novel Medicine Walk touches the reader with this same authenticity—the bittersweet pain and joy of the human experience—as lived by the author and expressed through his characters.
In the essay “Returning to Harmony” (appearing in the collection Speaking My Truth), Richard Wagamese writes of his own childhood:
“When I was born, my family still lived the seasonal nomadic life of traditional Ojibwa people. In the great rolling territories surrounding the Winnipeg River in Northwestern Ontario, they fished, hunted, and trapped. Their years were marked by the peregrinations of a people guided by the motions and turns of the land. I came into the world and lived in a canvas army tent hung from a spruce bough frame as my first home. The first sounds I heard were the calls of loon, the snap and crackle of a fire, and the low, rolling undulation of Ojibwa talk… But there was a spectre in our midst.”
Like Wagamese (who would be separated from his Ojibwa family for twenty years), the main character in Medicine Walk, sixteen-year-old Franklin Starlight, grew like a sapling up out of the land, “hearing symphonies in wind across a ridge and arias in the screech of hawks and eagles, the huff of grizzlies and the pierce of a wolf call against the unblinking eye of the moon. He was Indian.”
But there was a specter in his midst, too. Raw-boned and angular, Franklin leaves the old man and mountain that reared him to retrieve his liquored-up father from a one room hovel where he is living out the last days of a tortured life. The father wants to die in the warrior way of his people. Duty bound, Franklin agrees to lead his father back into the mountains. Tethered to a saddle on the back of a faithful old mare so that he won’t spill onto the ground, the father is led by his son on a journey that pulls them both through untold stories and unwanted memories.
Medicine Walk is epic in scope, in part because of the timeless, generational themes, but also because it shows us the broad, deep scope of the human heart. The story has a familiarity about it because we find bits of ourselves inside each character. We know the bittersweet taste of our own agony and ecstasy, and so we can intuit what it is to be young Franklin, or dying Eldon, or to be like the old man, valuing love and loyalty above blame or sorrow.
When confronted with the herculean task of painting the Sistine Chapel, Michelangelo escaped to the mountains and found inspiration in nature. The mountains are also where young Franklin finds solace and purpose. It is in nature’s steep ravines that he hides the empty chasms of his heart.
In Wagamese’s essay “Returning to Harmony," we begin to understand how young Franklin came to inhabit the fictional pages of Medicine Walk. We glimpse the steep ravine of the author’s own life when Wagamese writes about his family:
“Each of them had experienced an institution that tried to scrape the Indian off of their insides, and they came back to the bush and river raw, sore, and aching. The pain they bore was invisible and unspoken. It seeped into their spirit, oozing its poison and blinding them from the incredible healing properties within their Indian ways.”
If the job of a novelist is to invite the reader into a world at once new and unexplored, yet so familiar that we wear it like an old flannel jacket, then Wagamese was the kind of novelist you want guiding you through this uncharted terrain. The New York Times, in their review of Medicine Walk, said that the novel felt more like it was etched rather than written.
Like writer A.B. Guthrie, Wagamese has left a permanent mark on the literary landscape of America. Young Boone Caudill (from Guthrie’s novel The Big Sky) shares Frank Starlight’s prowess and intensity. On the brink of manhood, Boone leaves the backwoods of Kentucky and the hard knocks of a drunken father with nothing but an old, sure shot rifle and a roasted hen, still warm, wrapped inside a greasy rag. Boone leaves for the wilderness knowing all he needs to know about his family, but nothing about the West.
Franklin knows all he needs to know about the wilderness, but nothing about his family. Both boys enter uncharted lands. “Taking life was a solemn thing,” young Franklin thinks to himself as he considers hunting, and the mystery of life. Tracking, for him, is to slip out of the bounds of what he knows of earth, and "outward into something larger, more complex and simple all at once. He had no word for that."
But a cry born of a loss? That he slowly came to understand was a part of him forever.
A.B. Guthrie, who won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 1950, died in 1991. Richard Wagamese passed away on March 10, 2017, after writing more than a dozen books. When the hand of the artist truly does become one with the hand of God, we feel our own lives touched by both, the art we love etched in the soft stone of our heart.
Note: Read Wagamese's entire essay "Seeking Harmony" as published in Speaking My Truth.
Note: Go to Richard Wagamese's author website.
Note: Buy Medicine Walk from Milkweed Editions.