I was standing at a bus stop when I came to a – possibly THE – crucial point in Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse. Tears filled my eyes, and I gasped audibly, startling those around me. Then I quietly, internally screamed “Nooooooo!” and not so quietly and internally cursed Wagamese for the turn the story took. “How could you?” I remember thinking, but I knew how he could, really. Few stories have legitimately happy endings; no one escapes unscathed in this life.
I recovered – barely – from this visceral literary reaction, enough to finish reading the book, and went on to press it on or recommend it to everyone I knew, anyone who would listen. “It’s that good?” people would ask, and I would say “Yes. It’s brutal. But it’s that good.” It turns out that most of the people I know don’t want to read books described as “brutal”, but no matter. Indian Horse has stayed with me, like a secret.
I was lucky enough to receive a copy of Richard Wagamese’s next book Medicine Walk (thank you, gritLIT festival organizers!) and before I started reading, I steeled myself, silently telling the author “you won’t get me this time, Wagamese, this time I’ll be ready for…that…whatever it is you’re planning to dish out, mark my words!” Which is ridiculous, I know. But there it is.
Medicine Walk, though, is a different sort of book. The story is woven slowly, quietly, out of nothing, it seems, the way our stories usually are. 16-year old Franklin Starlight is summoned by his estranged father, to take him on a journey. The elder Starlight is dying, he knows this, and he has a specific location in mind for his death and burial. Along the way, his story is revealed – slowly – to his son, and Franklin comes to better understand both his father and himself.
Richard Wagamese is a wonderful storyteller. There is so much beauty in his words, it makes the pain of what he has to say both easier to bear, and yet more difficult. There is beauty in everything he describes, in every character he develops, and for us, in our society with its black and white opinions about good and evil, beautiful and ugly, this can seem impossible. Can you write about drunkenness, poverty, abuse, the horrors of war and near hopeless situations and still find beauty? Richard Wagamese says yes, and I have to agree.
Eldon Starlight’s life was one of hardship and pain, with some joy, and it is the joy the reader clings to, even knowing how his story is going to end. Searching for his own story, the younger Starlight is able to find it, reluctantly piecing together the fragments from his father’s. At one point on their journey, the pair stay briefly with a woman called Becka, who provides food, lodging, and medicine for Eldon. She also offers this to Franklin:
“Who’s to say how much of anythin’ we are?” Becka said. “Seems to me the truth of us is where it can’t be seen. Comes to dyin’, I guess we all got a right to what we believe.”
“I can’t know what he believes. He talks a lot, but I still got no sense of him. So far it’s all been stories.”
She only nodded. “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.”
For Eldon, telling his story is like releasing a weight, and it comes at the end for him, a way to make peace. For Franklin hearing the story, he must assume this weight, but this for him is more of a beginning. A place for his own story to start. Blanks filled in. The unknown now known.
Like in Indian Horse, there is a “reveal”, something the reader might suspect, late in the book, but unlike that book, it doesn’t hit like a ton of bricks. Rather, it develops slowly, like a thought dawning on you, and it feels like a way to put things right. A Richard Wagamese-esque happy ending if you will. Like life itself. Bittersweet.
Most of us know our story from the beginning. We know where we were born and in what circumstances. A lot of us know or knew grandparents, maybe even great-grandparents, and extended family members who – for good or bad – shape our story. If we think of life as a story with a beginning, a middle and an end, we can empathize with Franklin Starlight who struggles to learn the beginning of his story somewhere around the middle, and then needs to see it through to the end on his own.
Life as story. I am so grateful to Richard Wagamese for this perspective. We are our stories. We can be nothing else.