Medicine River; another reason to read Thomas King

Medicine River is classic Thomas King. Set in Alberta, it focuses on the relationships established by the main character, Will. Will moves back to the community that lies just outside of the reserve, after education and working as a photographer in Toronto. As much as Will makes out to be stoic, not needing to involve himself in the relations of others, he pays attention his pal, Harlen, who is the centre of all the goings on and gossip on the reserve.

The novel is narrated through Will, who flips back and forth between the present and past. The vignettes that make up his memories, more often than not, have an implicit connection to the current events that are affecting his life. We learn that his mother married a bull-riding white man who was never present in the lives of Will or his brother, James.   Because of this, they were not allowed to move back to the reserve legally. Thus, when Will moves back, he must remain outside of reserve limits.

This is what makes it so identifiable with Thomas King; someone seemingly unwittingly defining himself by those around him. Will seems to be a well-adjusted, educated man, but seeks something through his relationships with the other characters and place. Obviously, this is illustrated liminally by Will’s placement outside of the reserve.

Will is half-native, plays for the reserve’s basketball team and, mainly through Harlen, knows most of the members of the reserve’s friendship centre, yet due to his father being white, cannot access any advantages offered by living on the reserve. These advantages include a closer proximity to his community of friends. What has been used to identify or define so many of Canada’s Aboriginal community is taken from Will and he must approach his self-definition in another way.

Will is accepted without question by the members of the Medicine River reservation. This is not a form of the bildungsroman story by which the protagonist must move through a series of trials in order to achieve a personal awakening. Instead, Will must recognize the acceptance of those around him for him to solidify and activate a role within the community and see himself as an active member of the Aboriginal community. He is therefore presented as a passive entity, while the people around him reach out and present efforts to establish a connection to the latest member of their community.

The main case in point is Will’s development of a romantic interest. Linda begins the novel dating someone else, carries his baby and gives birth. Will is set up awkwardly with her, a friendship develops and supports her through term and delivery of the baby, including the amusing confusion amidst the hospital staff that he is the father. This includes a nurse asking him what he will name his new daughter and, in attempt to be funny, tells the nurse that they have chosen the name South Wing (after the area of the hospital they are in). This attempt at humour backfires when the nurse asks if South Wing is a traditional Indian name.

Will stays in the lives of Linda and South Wing, and eventually this blooms into a mutually respectful romantic interest. And this is my point here, King surrounds Will with dysfunctional relationships, from on the reserve and his past, childhood and adulthood in Toronto. Will’s slow approach in developing relationships as less of the firebrand romanticism, but illustrates how healthy foundations can be established, on which friendships and love can be created, not for simply a moment, but with longevity in mind.

The metaphor of bridge jumping took me a bit of reflection to make a connection to. Harlen and Will climb the town’s bridge with Harlen’s brother who just blew into town. The brother jumps, but Harlen and Will do not. I was sure that by the end of the book the pair would be shown to conquer their fear and go back to jump off the bridge in a form of testosterone fuelled manhood bonding. They do not, and that is alright. I realized just how steeped in the stereotype of the above I am. Just when did stability become not okay, or putting personal safety first make you less of a man?

I’m going with this happening just about the time when jumping off of bridges, or the drink/testosterone/teasing fuelled equivalent, became the proof of manhood. For men who gauge their worth on such actions, they seem to have the need to do so continually or else risk loosing their said manhood. Will and Harlen do not give into the pressure of Harlen’s brother, nor the pressures put on them by society at large. Harlen does meddle with gossip, is a recovering alcoholic, but I would argue that his actions come from a true place of caring and friendship, for all he is involved with. Will’s self-reflection and passivity do not seem to reflect the ideals of a society that associates action and bravery with admirable qualities. His demeanour, which reflects the cliche “look before you leap,” allows for true friendship and love to develop and, therefore, allow Will to avoid the pitfalls of his past and those who share the area around Medicine River.

You must admire King for the way that he is able to flip the stereotypes on their heads, specifically the Western white version of how things should be. For all of Will’s passivity, I found myself cheering for him throughout the book, though if I was asked at the time I could not have explained why. The real lesson was upon completion of the novel and understanding the factors that made Will the hero. He had the ability to understand himself, albeit unwittingly at times, in a way that few of us do. Comfortable in his own solitude and eventually with others, coming to grips with how he fits into a larger community. The important factor for the reader is that Will does not need to prove himself in some sort of artificial way, or prove himself to anybody else.  At risk of sounding like an after-school special, Will does the best by being himself.

*edit* I did want to comment that this post was the first written over a series of days.  I didn’t like this feeling, there was something missing from the fluidity of the previous posts.  Feel free to comment on this as well as the actual book.

2 comments

  1. The only thing I had previously digested from King was his Massey Lecture: The Truth About Stories. Even though I read the narrative about three years ago, I found Medicine River to be an excellent complement. Each time I would finish a chapter or two and put the book down I would quote the repeated line from The Truth About Stories: “The truth about stories is, that’s all we are.” It seemed as though King was bringing his thoughts about real life, to life (so to speak) through Will’s stories and Medicine River.

    I struggled a bit at times with my perception that the protagonist was removed from the action of the story. Perhaps this was King attempting to show the divide between life on and off the reservation. Yet, this divide was not insurmountable for someone such as Will. The acceptance Will garnered by returning to Medicine River, even though not onto the reservation, allows one to contemplate the role proximity plays in our relationships. Is there a tipping point?

    I enjoyed the development of the relationship between Will and Linda, even though I found the flashbacks to the woman in Toronto to be somewhat strained at times. I concur that the ebb and flow of a relationship developing in a mature fashion from friendship, to love, then companionship was refreshing.

    The struggle for identity runs throughout the novel, whether it is: what makes one a basketball player, First Nations, a father, a friend, a photographer, or as you suggest, what makes one a man? Is it staying out of jail? Is it having gone to Wounded Knee? Is it jumping from a bridge? None of these, and many other questions, are ever fully resolved. I would have liked a bit more depth on some, particularly Wounded Knee, and perhaps Will’s thoughts on conflict and resolution on a grander, national scale in Canada.

    At the same time, perhaps that would have led us away from sticking to the stories of Medicine River, and as King has said elsewhere, stories are all we are.

    Thanks for the recommendation – I really enjoyed it, and reading your reflection.

    1. I am glad. We bought Coyote’s Solstice this past holiday season to ensure that we had something other than some of the other, typical reading material for our daughters. Poignant and witty, King`s short tale of Coyote`s encounter with a human girl that runs away from the shopping mall, leads to the questioning and serves as a reminder that the holidays are not about consumerism and more about time with friends. I loved it and read it over and over throughout the season.

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