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text 2017-02-20 01:16
Medicine Walk - authentic, complex, brutal in it's truth


Franklin Starlight never knew his mother and the few encounters he's had with his alcoholic father left him hurt and disappointed.


He's been raised on a small ranch in northern British Columbia by "the old man", who's taught him everything he knows about ranching and wilderness survival. He's also taught him about integrity, self-esteem and the qualities of good character.


At sixteen, Franklin's more a man then most.


When he gets a call from his father he's tempted to ignore it, but this time it's different. His father is dying of liver disease and wants Frank to help him travel to remote ridge forty miles out in the wilderness. Once there he wants "a warrior's death", buried sitting upright in the ground facing east "so he can follow the rising sun across the sky to the Happy Hunting Grounds."


As it's his father's dying wish, Frank feels duty-bound to oblige him. Besides, he's longing to know more about his family history including how he came to be brought up by the "the old man".


So begins the journey, from a small mill town into the wilderness, Frank walking and leading a horse his father rides because he is too weak to walk.


As each mile passes Franklin begins to know his father as the man slowly divulges his personal history, Franklin's history.


In Medicine Walk, Richard Wagamese has created a story that resonates on many levels. There's the portrayal of a Spartan way of life defined by hard manual labour, loyalty and integrity as conveyed in the characters of Franklin and "the old man".


Then there's the life Franklin's father has lived - one of never facing up to your demons and using alcohol to keep them at bay.


It's a story of the extremes of human nature - of doing the right thing no matter how tough and painful it is, and doing everything to avoid it.


Wagamese' dialogue is authentic, his characters complex, and his story is brutal in it's truth.





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review SPOILER ALERT! 2016-11-01 17:25
Review: Keeper'n Me
Keeper'n Me - Richard Wagamese

Rating: 4.5


Synopsis: All but kidnapped by social workers at age 3, Garnet Raven finds himself growing up in a series of foster homes, leaving him with a confused sense of identity. Eventually, as an adult, he finds himself serving time at a penitentiary. While he is here, he receives a letter from his family inviting him to come home after his release. Nervous, and a little reluctant, Garnet Raven accepts this offer and finds himself on an unique spiritual journey - not only to reconnect with lost family and with his community, but to recover his spirit and cultural identity as he learns to embody the traditions of the Anishanabe people.  


Review & Commentary:


Keepern' Me is an intimate account of spiritual healing. This is not an action-driven novel with a fast-moving plot; but a character study told by two first-person perspectives: those of Garnet and his mentor, Keeper, who struggles to overcome alcoholism. Between these two narratives, Wagamese lets the reader delve into the protagonist's psyche and explore the mysticism of Ojibwe spiritual tradition, reverence for nature, the important role family plays in our lives, the process of healing, and the complexities of reconnecting with family and community after long separation. He takes us on a long, winding journey exploring the impacts of foster care on Garnet Raven, daily life on the White Dog reserve, learning traditional values, and Garnet's intimate relationships with his family.


Wagamese is a wonderful narrator. As I read this novel, I often got the feeling that I was sitting on a plastic chair with sweat sticking my thighs, cracking beers in my neighbour's yard and sharing stories until the sun went down. I could imagine a friend with a big, toothy grin cracking up as they retold a story; then their eyes growing dark and hooded as they shared a more solemn remembrance with me. To stir up such a vivid feeling of confidence exhibits a great use of technique. Wagamese utilizes dialectical speech to help conjure this feeling throughout the novel and does it remarkably well. His humour is quintessentially Canadian and feels both innocent and familiar -  


"I was a homeless Hawaiian for a while there in Niagara Falls. Had these flowered shirts I found at the Sally Ann, mirrored sunglasses on a rope around my neck, brushcut, and even got a beat up old ukulele at a pawnshop. We'd be drinkin' wine in the park and I'd be teaching people how to say things in fictituous Hawaiian and singing these dumb songs on that ukulele. Touching stuff like "KahmonIwannalayya," "Nookienookienow" or "The Best Leis Are Hawaiian" (pg. 22).


His simple, stripped-down writing is vivid, warm, and inviting. Wagamese thus transports his readers easily to wonderful camping spots, traditional breakfasts, and mornings canoeing -


"And what a morning. The sun was just coming up and the purple light was fading off, revealing mist on the bay and the circles of rising fish. There was more birds in the trees than I ever heard before and just beyond the mouth of the bay was a beaver hauling a long branch of poplar to his den somewhere further down the shoreline. The long dwindling Y in the water sent ripples right up to where my camp was. By the time I got the fire stoked up and going again the sun was completely up.


For me, breakfast in the bush is the greatest thing in the world. There's nothing quite like that first big slug of campfire coffee and the smell of bacon and eggs against the cold crispness of the air. I fished awhile and hooked a nice little pickerel from the pool and ate him up right away too" (pg. 240).


Wagamese focuses on the White Dog reserve as the primary setting, and it plays an important role in the novel by symbolizing the contrasts between traditional Ojibwe life and today's mainstream culture, as well as providing a backdrop to explore the difficulties in balancing tradition and spirituality with a fast-paced world. While at times Wagamese's descriptions of reserve life seem a little idealistic, I also found them to be refreshing and uplifting. Real problems do face our reserves, such as lack of clean water or educational facilities, but Wagamese chooses to focus almost entirely on the positive impacts of reserve life, only making subtle suggestions about its hardships. He describes how (when reserves are distanced from mainstream society) they can act as a safe, quiet haven from a busier, more complicated city life; how the closeness to wilderness and the simplicity of life can be balming to an injured spirit; and how the close, connected community provides meaningful support through life's hardships. This departure from the typical doom-and-gloom perspective presented by the media gives the reader a more positive outlook on our reserves and one that I think is much needed. It also serves as an important commentary by the author: that the dominant "white" culture fails to provide young people with spiritual guidance, meaningful supports, and a reverence for nature, leading to problems with addiction, a lack of self-awareness, failure to respect others, and environmental pollution.


Wagamese also uses Ojibwe beliefs to challenge mainstream conceptions of masculinity, demonstrating an alternative that balances masculinity with femininity. One that involves having the courage to cry, ask for help, and seek guidance; one that requires being able to admit to mistakes and weaknesses; one that involves hugging and demonstrating affection and gentleness; and one that is grounded on respect for others, family, tradition, and nature.


Keepern' Me leaves a lasting impression on the reader. It is a novel to pass away cool evenings with a cup of strong tea and a warm blanket. It will have a special meaning to those who have undergone their own healing journeys. It is deserving of its praise, particularly as a debut novel from Wagamese. It leaves something to savour and to reflect on. A worthy read.    


(edited 11/08/16)

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review 2015-06-24 23:11
Definitely a book directed at Canadians
By Richard Wagamese Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

I knew that children were sent to Australia from British orphanages, I knew that Aboriginal children were separated from their families 'for their own good'. I knew that children of Irish mothers were 'rehomed' without trace. Now I discover that Canadian Indian children were also wrenched from their families and forced to live in barbaric schools. Here they learnt very little and were savagely beaten for minor infringements of the totally unrealistic rules. Their native language was banned and most of their days were spent in cleaning, farming or cooking, serving men and women who should never have been nuns or monks in the first place. Why is this becoming such a familiar scenario? Why are there so many evil people masquerading as Christians?


Saul Indian Horse comes from a loving Ojibway family. His grandparents are from the 'old way' but his parents' generation are Christian, living as their ancestors had, but confused about what they believe. They are, however, determined that Saul and his brother Benjamin will not be stolen away like their elder sister, never to be seen again.


Unfortunately, in spite of their best efforts, Saul finds himself at St Jerome's. Here he survives the loneliness and fear by totally engrossing himself in the game of ice hockey.


This is where the Canadian readers in our book group continued to be engrossed, while the non-Canadians got lost in a continuous description of hockey jargon. I found myself skipping large chunks of detailed descriptions of hockey games, exciting twirls on the back of the blade and bouncing off backboards. It sounds like an horrifically violent sport, but I was totally out of my depth in these passages, which formed a large proportion of the book.


This book had a strong message about survival and endurance and what it takes to overcome a traumatic childhood, and I would surely have been giving it 4 stars if it hadn't been so strongly biased towards ice hockey.

Recommended reading for Canadians.

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review 2015-06-21 15:25
Surprised by all the positive reviews.
Medicine Walk - Richard Wagamese

Despite all the positive reviews I couldn't quite understand the love people have for this. The premise sounded very interesting: a young Native (although on the cover flap it says Indian) man is summoned by his father (who is dying) to learn about his father, his own past, and why his father essentially abandoned him to be pretty much raised by a white man. We follow these two on their journey and learn along with Franklin (who has skills in surviving and living off the land) about his father and his past.


It's my understanding that this may be at least somewhat autobiographical in nature since the author had been in several foster homes and eventually adopted by a family. And yet, I couldn't get into this. Initially the book seemed promising (if a bit confusing by referring to "the kid," "the old man," etc. and rather sparse in terms of who these people were and why we were dropped into the book like this. But it just dragged on and on. Normally historical fiction (especially if it's based off the author's personal experiences) are works I really enjoy, but this definitely wasn't one of them.


The life story of Eldon (Franklin's father) didn't really bring any sort of emotional response from me. I certainly can't identify with one of these men's experiences, but the author didn't really do his job in getting me to care to find to find out more about Eldon, why we needed to know what happened next, how this would affect Franklin, what was Franklin supposed to get out of it, etc.


I'm not sure if my perception is being affected by the fact that this is the first book by Wagamese that I've read. I've had his 'Indian Horse' on my list of books to read for awhile, but this popped up in my library and I snatched it up. I'll still read 'Indian Horse' but I'm not sure I'll be as eager.


Recommend the library for this one.

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review 2013-11-16 02:51
Indian Horse
Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

Synopsis: "Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows..."


My Thoughts:

This is undeniably a very good story. We are introduced to Saul Indian Horse as he tells us he is from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway. "They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland. They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes."

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