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Searching for Home In High-Plains Canada

By Jim BencivengaJim Bencivenga is the Monitor's book editor. / October 3, 1990



`HOME is where when you have to go there, they have to take you in,'' wrote the poet Robert Frost, in a stark, unromantic Yankee view of home in the life of a dying hired hand. Home, and having to go there, is the central fact of this delightful, bittersweet first novel by Thomas King, who gives us a 1980s cross-cultural version of William Saroyan's classic, ``The Human Comedy.''

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The setting is the Alberta prairie town of Medicine River. It butts against the Blackfoot Indian reserve. Despite a backdrop of bitter cold winters and a landscape that is high-plains vast - remote, desolate, solitary - readers will search long and hard in contemporary fiction to find as intimate a sense of place and people as in ``Medicine River.''

King, who is of Cherokee, Greek, and German origin, and a member of the native studies department at the University of Lethbridge, Alberta, can be trusted as a reliable guide to present-day native Americans. Will, his narrator, is of mixed origin.

King's writing is as smooth and subtle as the snow-covered prairie, as gentle in recording human oddities as a mouse burrowing beneath snow pack. The characters of Medicine River confront reality with stories that are extended metaphors for what they think happened, or should have happened, whether or not it did happen. The white, European premise of scientific and empirical certitude is stood on its head.

When the story opens, both of Will's parents are dead. A single phone call, a day late for Christmas, is the only ``live'' contact with his younger brother, James. We learn of each through flashbacks. We know his mother was called Rose Horse Capture. His father was a white rodeo rider, who left home when he was four years old. His mother never spoke of him. The separation from his father is Will's central concern. Though from a culture that takes names and the act of naming seriously, he never tells us his father's last name.

In addition, Will cannot live on the Blackfoot reserve where his mother grew up, only nearby, since only full-blood Blackfoot Indians are allowed to do so.

But if his immediate family is absent, one character is almost too present - Harlen Bigbear, a Blackfoot version of Don Quixote and Sancho Panza rolled into one. The tribal basketball coach, Bigbear makes it his business to make everyone else's business his own. Yet he remains one of the least offensive snoops in literature. By making Bigbear the most important character in his story, Will is ``repeating'' and sharing grief all the time.

It is Bigbear who brings the packet of letters that Will's father had written to his mother after abandoning her and his sons. The letters trigger a series of memories that pulse from present to past, family then to friend now, and which, however loosely structured, give cadence, order, and coherence to Will's life.

There is drinking and fighting in Medicine River. Wives suffer at the hands of their husbands. Young men drive their cars and themselves off the road to their deaths. King does not gloss over the ugly, but rather surrounds it with the deeper humanity of a good story, like Harlen Bigbear surrounding bad news with Quixote-like explanations, as if to talk tragedy into leaving.

Language for Bigbear is a joust with windmills. Bigbear's shortcomings on matters of objective truth are hilarious. King is a master at the conversational nonsequitur. The cumulative effect of Bigbear's fictions creates an abiding affection for characters who constantly circle grief.

King breaks down stereotypes about Indians as rhythmically as the drumbeat at a ceremonial gathering. Will is a photographer, an occupation seemingly at odds with the stereotype of Indians not wanting their picture taken because their spirit would be imprisoned in the photograph. In one scene, Will is commissioned to take a family portrait for one of the huge extended families from the reserve. The family is so large it is impossible to fit them all in his studio. They move to a hollow by the nearby river, and quickly turn the picture-taking into a picnic as well. The children playing by the riverbank, when called for the picture, come ``wiggling along like a twist of eels all wrapped around each other.''

Before his return to Medicine River, Will lived in Toronto. When a white women he loves tells him she is married, it is her promiscuous idea of what extended family means, not Will's, that is called into question. Will demands that she decide between him and her husband. She chooses neither, walking away from any commitment. This jars awake memories Will has long suppressed and leads directly to his return to Medicine River.

The book ends with Will spending Christmas Eve and Christmas Day by himself. Peaceful enough, he goes for a walk on the crunching snow. The effort to make a home is as important as the effort to return to one.