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Medicine River, by Thomas King

May 10, 2013

Medicine River, by Thomas King. Penguin Books (2006). Paperback, 264 pages

Another wonderful novel by Native American storyteller Thomas King, about a young man making a life for himself in his home town.

Thomas King is one of my favorite novelists.  I love his wry humor and the precision with which he creates his characters, especially his strong women.   In this, his first novel, King tells the stories of Will, a young photographer in a small Canadian town near the US border.  In some ways, Will is typical of young men and women everywhere, and a variety of readers will easily identify with his curiosity about his past and his indecision in the present.  But Will is an Indian, as he expresses it, living in a town with a strong Indian community and near an Indian reservation.  Although Will grew up in a city apartment, Medicine River was home to his mother and a link to his roots.  Through him, readers can learn respect for his heritage.

Medicine River is not driven by an overarching plot, but by King’s subtle exploration of its characters.  Different chapters each carry a story which recount different incidents in Will’s life, and include flashbacks to relevant incidents that he remembers.  The incidents are deceptively simple, but they build as Will gradually comes to terms with his past and his present.

Will’s friend, Harlan, is another key figure in the book.  It was Harlan who persuaded Will to come back to Medicine River.  Harlan argued that although the town had other photographers, none of them was an Indian.  He said it was “Real embarrassing, to have to go to a white for something as intimate as a photograph.”  Harlan’s role in the community is to know what is going on and to find ways to help members in need.  He makes it a regular practice of involving Will in his missions, but he is always slow to come right out and ask for Will to help. “Whenever Harlan had something important he wanted to tell me, he’d sort of float around the subject for a while like those buzzards you see around Blindman’s Coulee all the time.”

Through Harlan, Will becomes involved in a local basketball team along with a bunch of misfits.  He explores his relationship with his brother and the stories his mother told. He  becomes friends with a young unmarried mother that Harlan and others want him to marry.  Louise, like many of King’s female characters, is spunky and independent, not eager to be rescued.   Through his interaction with her, readers learn more of Will’s earlier life—a woman in the city he had once loved and his own pain growing up without a father.  But Louise understands that “marriage was always more of a burden on women than on men, that women always had to take on extra weight, while men just fall into marriage as if they were falling into bed.”  Will is suitably ambivalent about Louise’s attitude, but the two of them manage to create a sustaining relationship.

King has a long-time interest in how people regard truth, and he describes Harlan’s view:

But you know, truth’s like a green-broke horse.  You can come running out of the barn and throw on a saddle, leap on its back and plant your heals in its side, but you never know which way it is going to run or who it’s going to kick.  Sometimes it’s better to walk up slow, you know, with a carrot or an apple.  Let it smell the saddle for a while, before you pull the cinch and slide up.

Medicine River seems to have been written from just such a belief. King gently tells us that Indians are really just human beings, like everybody else, once you get to know them, except when they are not.

I strongly recommend Medicine River to all who enjoy well-written, pleasing stories, as well as those who want to know more about being Indian in contemporary North America.

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