At first glance, Medicine River has a gentleness to its plot that is easily mistaken for the monotony of nothing happening. I’ll freely admit that, especially at the beginning of the novel, I had trouble finding something specific about the story that I could point to as a defining moment, or even a central conflict. Will’s circuitous narration, interspersed with frequent flashbacks, and Harlen’s idiosyncratic way of saying everything indirectly, make for a book that might seem frustratingly dull on the surface. To his credit, however, Thomas King packs much more into this slim story than initially meets the eye. And as I devoured the last few chapters, I started understanding why Medicine River has received so much praise.
My first instinct was to ascribe this book’s slow pacing to the fact that it’s “character driven”—but it’s not, not really. Even the characters seem to drift in and out of focus like a camera with a slightly janky lens (see, I worked in a photography simile). Medicine River’s power comes from context rather than character or even event. It is a novel steeped in cultural and symbol; and so, I can see how people unwilling or unable (for whatever reason) to engage at that level might find it wanting.
One way to approach the book is a bit obvious but no less revealing: the protagonist, Will, is an Indigneous man who moves back to Medicine River after spending much of his adult life in Toronto. As a result, he has kind of lived in “both worlds,” rural and heavily urban. He knows what life is like on a reserve (which Medicine River borders) as well as what it’s like in Canada’s biggest city. And one of the recurring motifs in this book is the way Will feels various “pulls” from different aspects of the societies he belongs to.
On the one hand, Will has spent a great deal of his life away from his people and his spiritual home. We don’t earn a lot about Will’s teenage years, about how he ended up in Toronto after living in Calgary and Medicine River with his mother and brother as a child. It’s clear that Will enjoys the art of photography, and that he is a capable small business owner. But there is a question mark hovering over his head, a kind of latent sense of expectation: What now? What next?
If Harlen Bigbear gets his way, “now” and “next” entail moving back to Medicine River as the town’s “only Native photographer” and moving in, if not marrying, Louise Heavyman. And so we see Will’s Indigenous identity interrogated. He constantly finds himself involved in his culture and its practices in a way that he wasn’t back in Toronto, where he was usually the “token Native.”
This is really the most brilliant aspect of Medicine River, but you really need to want to see it in order to appreciate that brilliance. King parodies and subverts and lampshades the stereotypical depiction of Indigenous peoples in media: almost always absent, when Indigenous people show up in Canadian or American productions, they almost always fit into one of a few narrow moulds. From the “noble savage” or “warrior” stereotype in historical productions to the “intensely spiritual, connected to the land” stereotype you might see in more contemporaneous depictions, Indigenous people in settler media seldom have the chance to be individuals. Contrast this with Medicine River, where the cast is predominantly Indigenous and the characters are just that: individuals, just regular, everyday people, with all the hang-ups and vices you might expect.
I don’t want you to get the impression, however, that King is only saying, “Hah hah, see, we’re just like white folk!” But this is a vital reminder—and one that even people like me, who work with Indigenous individuals on a daily basis, need: we get so caught up in “Indigenous issues” that we fall into the trap of generalizing experiences that are often very personal. King does engage with the stereotypes and the racism and marginalization that Indigenous feel in various ways. Take, for example, the casual wisecrack to Will about the irony of him being a photographer given “what Indians believe about photographs” (cricket chirp). Or the various references to clashes between colonial powers and Indigenous peoples, from Custer’s Last Stand to the more recent Wounded Knee occupation. Even among Indigenous people, there are conflicts and confrontations about how to perform Indigeneity (see Big John versus Eddie). And while it is not always in the foreground, the struggles with alcoholism, abuse, and crime that disproportionately affect Indigenous members of our society are always there in the background, as Will and Harlen discuss members of their community who experience these traumas.
The point, then, is that while many other books (like the amazing Indian Horse) by Indigenous authors address poignant issues head-on, King does so through a snapshot of contemporary Indigenous society as he sees it in the 1980s. It’s very easy to complain about this, to say it’s just a very literary book where “nothing happens”—but white people write books like that all the time and win awards for it! Medicine River looks the reader in the eye and challenges you about what you believe a book by or about Indigenous people should be like.
I read this because I’m embarking on my first time teaching Grade 11 College Preparation English to a group of adult Aboriginal students. There are also four students in the class taking it as a “Contemporary Aboriginal Voices” Native Studies/English credit, so I’m very much focusing on Indigenous issues, culture, and content. Obviously this is a challenge for a white guy like me! Although my fellow teachers often teach Indian Horse in their Grade 11 classes—and I might very well do it at some point soon!—Medicine River appeals to me for its broader scope and less traumatic tone. That’s not to say we should avoid trauma (hell, I taught Lullabies for Little Criminals to my previous English class); however, we will touch on residential schools and other traumas plenty in other areas of the course. I’m very much looking forward to studying this book in further depth with my students and hearing their feedback and opinions about it.