Book review: Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

A father and son’s literal and spiritual journey that will feed your soul

Medicine Walk Richard Wagamese Emblem: McClelland & Stewart 2015 Paperback $17.95

Medicine Walk
Richard Wagamese
McClelland & Stewart

With prose as clean and bright as the mountain streams that feature strongly in this vividly crafted landscape, Wagamese has written homage to the land. Rugged, open and wild, the mountains are a character in themselves. The light, the wildlife, the air — all seem to pulse with life. It is through this landscape that we are introduced to Franklin Starlight: “…and he rode through it fleshed out and comfortable with the feel of the land around him like the refrain of an old hymn.” He is, in the fullest sense of the word, capable. Franklin can shoot an elk, make a lean-to, catch fish with a willow branch and track animals as easily as he can harvest them.

Franklin was raised on a back country farm by a character we are introduced to as “the old man.” His father, Eldon, is an intermittent visitor who is most often drunk for his infrequent contacts with the young boy. It’s the old man who is the father figure, teaching Franklin the ways of the land, how to take from it, give thanks and be humbled by nature.

When Franklin is called to his father’s sick bed, he finds a ravaged husk of a man preparing to die. Eldon wants his son to take him into the back country to die and bury him like a warrior facing the rising sun on top of a ridge. The journey that they take is one through Eldon’s past as much as it is a passage to the ridge and his ultimate end. The journey reveals important intimate details of Eldon’s life, leading them both to greater understanding of each other.

This is a book about many things, but mostly about choices and the consequences that come, good or bad, from those choices. The book is also about landscapes of the heart and of the stunning mountains of British Columbia. Wagamese ably describes them both in this luminous book.

Haunting prose from the (perhaps) final voyage of the world’s best known travel writer
The Last Train to Zona Verde Paul Theroux Emblem: McClelland & Stewart 2013 Hardcover $21.00

The Last Train to
Zona Verde
Paul Theroux
McClelland & Stewart

I have read many of Paul Theroux’s books. The Last Train To Zona Verde, an account of Theroux’s travel from Cape Town along the west coast of Africa to Angola, feels different to me. There’s a darkness and foreboding. He writes, “It was the morbid belief that I might not return, not just to Cape Town, but home; that I was setting off to suffer and die.”

He casts an unwavering, unflinching look at the cities he encounters along his route, showing us haute cuisine juxtaposed with squatter camps sans running water or electricity, luxury hotel set against a backdrop of absolute poverty. He is appalled by the rates of murder, theft, rape and the pressure on the city from those leaving the poverty of the countryside for the poverty of the slums while the rich live in gated communities.

Theroux has a special disdain for aid workers, charitable dogooders, celebrities and rock stars meddling about corrupt and wasteful projects and his wanderings produce a scathing criticism of the “aid industry” and of corruption-prone dictatorial regimes. He questions the reason for his own trip and “what am I doing here” becomes a refrain. He finds answers and tells us one of his favourite things is walking across border frontiers. His first crossing is into Namibia where he finds Windhoek, a clean and spacious city. But his worries soon return again. Since he fears this is his last trip to Africa, maybe his last trip ever, he looks deeply inside himself and professes he wants to be ‘scrupulously truthful.”

This is not an easy book and first time readers of Theroux should look to some of his early works for an introduction. This book stuck with me, left me feeling a little haunted as I think Theroux is haunted by “….decaying cities, hungry crowds, predatory youths, and people abandoned by their governments…” Not a hopeful book but a profound meditation on the current state of Africa.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.