Sunday, August 12, 2007

a rollicking read, right when i needed it

Medicine River
by Thomas King

My mother died on a Tuesday in the early evening. My clearest memory of her was that day the row-boat sank in Lake Pokagon. I remember my fear of sinking into that lake. James wouldn't let go of the side of the boat. I was sure we were going to die. And then my mother snorted as her short legs found the bottom. The lake wasn't deep at all, at least not there. It hardly came above James's chest, and it was warm. My mother shook her head. "Well, we ain't going to die today." And she laughed and told us to hold on to her hands.

As Harelna and I pulled the canoe along, I could feel the large round stones under my feet, could hear the hollow roll they made as they rocked beneath me, and I thought about my mother and James and me, laughing and walking through the mud and the water to shore. James was with her when she died. I should have been there, too.

The river swirled around us, sucking at our feet, flashing at our legs as we went. Harlen began singing a forty-niner, beating out the rhythm on the gunwales. And we brought the canoe back through the dark water and into the light.

Medicine River is a novel of memory and remembrance. King's first novel is indeed quite novel in form. Each chapter is an interweaving of a present-day story about Will, a photographer living in Medicine River near his mother's home reserve, and a story of the past, either about Will's mother or brother or his past life in Toronto. In the present-day, Will has come to Medicine River following the death of his mother. The events of this time help him to become closer to his mother through reminiscence, as well as helping him to realize the inauthenticity of his life in Toronto and the power of connection he has in Medicine River. This is a novel, then, not only about memory, but about finding one's place in the world. And it's not always happy. Will is knocked for six when his "girlfriend" starts to redefine her relationship with her baby's father -- but it reifies his definition of himself as a single man. This is the life he claims makes him happy, and it parallels his romantic life in Toronto where he was the other man in a relationship with a married woman and is eventually broken-hearted. What we learn about this, and what the over-arching message of the text seems to be, is that life occurs in circles and cycles, ever repeating. Will seems to be in Medicine River as a chance to sort out his life and get things right. With his friend Harlen Bigbear as a kind of spiritual guide, Will is able to find his way forward, for better or for worse.

For fans of Thomas King's later work, this book may be a bit of a surprise. It lacks the magic realism of a novel like Green Grass, Running Water. But the sweetness and the kindness of Thomas King is here in this early novel, replete with the humour that has made him so popular. This is a warm novel about memory and experience, but I don't really have anything ground-breaking to write about it. I enjoyed it thoroughly, but it is not as layered as some of his later works.

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