Cracking Richard Wagamese's latest novel "Medicine Walk," his readers might wonder, "Haven't I read this one?" As in most of his fiction, the protagonist is a young American Indian coming of age. Wagamese himself is a First Nations Ojibwe from Ontario with hardscrabble beginnings.
Franklin Starlight knows little of his father besides a few erratic cameo appearances. Eldon Starlight embarks on these visits with his son with good intentions, but invariably they devolve into an alcoholic haze for him and disappointment for his son. The novel chronicles their final outing, when a dying Eldon summons Frankie to take him into the hills to be buried in accordance with warrior tradition, seated and topped by a cairn.
With only one horse, a few tools and a supply of "hooch" to keep Eldon just drunk enough, they set out. Becka — the generous recluse they bunk with for a night — whips up some sort of elixir with a morphine effect for Frankie to dole out to Eldon.
Each stop on the journey reveals a painful chapter of Eldon's past, necessary revelations told to Frankie but seemingly as much for his own edification and closure.
He was raised by a good-hearted mother who battled poverty but eventually lost. In spite of that meager start, Eldon had promise, but his spirit seized on the front lines in Korea, and his postwar stretches of sobriety were short. He took what work there was and, during one of these interludes, found love. Faced with the notion that life was bigger than himself, he began mistrusting it. In spite of a bucolic year spent with Angie, Eldon hit the bottle again. After Angie dies in childbirth — a senseless tragedy of Eldon's making — the new father is rendered hollow and incapable. Eldon hands off the infant Frankie to be raised by the man he'd taken Angie from.
The road to manhood and the importance of storytelling are at the crux of this short, intense father-son saga. But even before his journey with Eldon, Frankie hadn't just come of age, he'd surpassed it — 16 going on 70. The kid has the patience of a saint, is as deft as a Teamster with any tool and possesses the wilderness skills of Survivorman and acute knowledge of his natural surroundings. Although he was raised by a white man with scant contact with Indian people, Frankie has learned their ways, adopted a warrior-hunter's stealth and has the insight to rival the wisest elder.
In "Medicine Walk," we are presented with a focused, hardworking, calm, selfless and apparently hormone-free teenage boy as if one exists. There is a compelling story running through this novel, but between its lack of subtlety and cliché-fraught dialogue, "Medicine Walk" stumbles.
Sarah Stonich is the author of "Vacationland." She lives in Minnesota.