Tag Archives: Canada Reads

Medicine Walk: Time Out of Time

medicine walk

What makes for a great storyteller? What makes us listen? What can stories reveal about ourselves and others that allow connection and understanding? Richard Wagamese’s novel Medicine Walk explores these questions through the quasi-quest, quasi-bildungsroman narrative of Franklin Starlight. As Franklin accepts the task of helping his estranged father, Eldon, to his death, he also accepts the role of listener. Just as readers assume this position each time they open a new book, Franklin is unsure what to expect, but committed to the hearing.

This metafictional thread is softly woven, but bears consideration: what do we, as readers, assume (both in the sense of ‘to take on’ and ‘suppose to be the case’) when we begin reading? Genre, narrative point of view, diction and phrasing, author biography and context give us the rudimentary tools in the early pages of a story to position ourselves, to ease into a work and find where we sit vis a vis the story we’re hearing (nevermind that our particular readerly moment is one where books come laden with existing expectations – and reviews like these). Whether a story adheres to or troubles these expectations, and whether our expectations predetermine and limit what we’ll read/hear gets played out as Franklin grapples with reframing his feelings about his father and whether and how much he will accept the stories as true or sufficient recompense. These questions get echoed in Franklin’s confrontation with his own expectations of his father and of his own and Eldon’s separate and twinned identities and histories.

It’s an unusual (narrative) relationship. Eldon, an alcoholic and absentee parent, brings his story to Franklin with the ostensible purpose of telling Franklin about his birth, name, and family, but with the attendant – and mutually recognized – hope of earning, through the telling, Franklin’s forgiveness and some kind of reconciliation. The novel, in its exploration of this relationship, brings forward questions of what can be forgiven, what forgiveness entails, what we owe ourselves and our broadly understood family. Whether knowing the cause of an unforgiveable act, whether recognizing the cause as societal or historic or simply not our fault, can lessen the violence of the unforgiveable.

It also exposes the deeply moving selflessness of love, while still worrying about the difference between selflessness and selfishness. It explores the contours of this division in the character of Bucky in one of the more surprising and rich representations of humility and grace I’ve read in recent memory. He is a complex, if oddly unexamined, character in the book. Complex I suppose in that he performs key plot functions and occupies a layered character position; unexamined in these sense that his thoughts and reactions are obscured to us, accessed only in brief dialogue. Still, a poignant character.

One element of the novel that bothered me – at least for the first half – was that I couldn’t seem to place it in time or place. There were references to wars – World War II and Korea – that let me loosely place it but in an ahistorical (or perhaps extra-historical) way; and (stunning and beautiful) descriptions of place that left no doubt of a fully realized setting – just no setting with a corresponding place in reality that I could quickly identify. But as I latched on to the themes of storytelling I recognized that my desire to pin this narrative down in time and place was to try and evacuate it of its catholic impulse. This story of guilt, mortality, paternity, loyalty and love should, and does, move us regardless of place or time.

Which is not to say it isn’t also particular. It is a story of domestic violence, of poverty and of colonialism while also being a story of one boy making sense of who his father is, his (a)filial responsibilities and his capacity for forgiveness. I’d suggest it is also a book for readers of all stories to think about the responsibilities of listening and our capacity to be moved and changed by what we hear. It is certainly a book you ought to read; a story you ought to attend to.



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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction

The Antagonist: What’s wrong with me?


So why didn’t I like Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist? Short-listed for the Giller Prize in 2012 and named as one of the best books of the year by Canadian papers The Globe and Mail, The Toronto Star and even Amazon, it seems like everyone else thought/thinks this is a terrific read. Is it because I don’t care much about hockey (with the exception of gold medal games and stanley cup finals?) and the book is – on a surface level at least – about the violence engendered in the sport? Is it because the experiments with form – shifting from straight epistolary to metafictional commentary on the purpose of narrative – were neither subtle nor reflective of content (I reveal my bias here that I like formal play best, and perhaps only, when the form compliments or challenges the content)? Perhaps it was because the long delayed climax and been so overly built-up, so assured of its own cataclysmic significance,  that when it finally arrived I read it as anticlimax and disappointment: this is it? this is what he’s delayed telling us? this is the source of so much shame? Or maybe it was simply that the experience of the narrator – an experience far removed from my own – was not offered or rendered in a way that invited empathy or connection, such that the distance between his experience and mine felt like that – distance – rather than as an opportunity to inhabit the skin and experience of someone else and in so doing to change my perception and reactions.

With all these complaints I should say that the novel does carefully and fully explore the consequence(s) of using the stories of others for our own purposes: the ways we can exploit one another’s histories and stories for our advantage without intending to perhaps, but just by using the stories as adage rather than as the complex, idiosyncratic experiences that they are.

This is all to say that I didn’t enjoy The Antagonist but it may be more my fault than that of the novel. Or it may just be a case where I disagree with the critical reception. Convince me otherwise – I promise to exploit your comments.

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Filed under Book I'll Forget I Read, Canadian Literature, Fiction, Prize Winner

The Last Crossing: Marvellous

Of the many things I enjoyed about Guy Vanderhaeghe’s *The Last Crossing* I most enjoyed his use of narrative voice. The book moves between characters third person limited perspective with delineated sections for each and in ways that allows the same event to be experienced “differently” by the reader as it is shown from a different voice. This narration is particularly appropriate in that this book, set in the 1860s in the (eventual) American and Canadian northwest, is historical fiction: a genre that demands we readers think about the whose perspective is being offered *and* about how multiple versions of history contradict, complicated and confuse an idea of “what really happened.”

I love Charles Gaunt as a character best of all. Charles opens the book as he receives a letter advising him to return to Canada. The bulk of the narrative is then taken up explaining why Gaunt might want to return to Canada – what and who is there for him? and the book closes with the return to Gaunt’s present as he decides what to do about the letter. I love Charles because he sees his own limitations and failings and does not shy away from them. He realizes, too, those things about himself he cannot know – a sort of conscious ignorance and accepts that this ignorance will impact his decisions. He’s just the sort of thoughtful and reflective person I’d like to be.

In any case – I enjoyed the book. I found it provocative as well as “readable” – that ineffable quality of just being a pageturner. It’s well worth the read. Though you’ve probably already read it being as I’m showing up to the party a decade late (made more hilarious – to me at least – in that this book would have been/is *perfect* for my now complete dissertation. Oh well – even more enjoyable to discover it now when I can just “enjoy” it and its complexities without wondering how I’ll explain and analyze each passage). 

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Filed under Canadian Literature, Fiction, Historical Fiction, Prize Winner