The set up for Thomas King’s “Medicine River” is deceptively simple: our protagonist, Will, initially returns home to the small Albertan reserve, Medicine River, to attend his mother’s funeral. At Will’s surprise, an old acquaintance from his past persuades him to permanently stay in Medicine River. What follows is Will’s return to his hometown, and his establishment within the small community. Does Will accept or regret his decision in coming back? The plotting of such a story may sound familiar. However, King’s writing and pacing suggests a much more ambitious scope.
The old acquaintance is Harlen Bigbear, Medicine River’s champion, and man about town, who is in on all the comings and goings that occur within. Harlen becomes a big part of Will’s new life that he is trying to create for himself. This includes Harlen helping Will set up his own photo shop in and encouraging him to pursue Louise, a potential love interest. King alternates between present and past day, drawing on Will’s history to create a more meaningful narrative. While doing so, Will’s character becomes more authentic; we learn about his thoughts and feelings about being a First Nations man on a small reserve in contemporary Canada, his insecurities about his life and the passions that drive him.
King uses Will’s occupation as a photographer as an effective device to the storytelling; the narrative structure, detailed accounts of events, and the creation of vivid, three dimensional characters feels like King is sharing his most treasured and personal photos with us. We come to see who the important people in Will’s life are and how they change over time. Written in an unassuming prose, “Medicine River” takes on a human approach to characterization that draws in and makes us care deeply about Will and the people of Medicine River.