(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Medicine River chronicles the lives of a group of contemporary Native Americans in Western Canada. The novel is divided into eighteen short chapters. The story is recounted by the protagonist, Will Sampson, in an amiable, conversational fashion, with frequent flashbacks to earlier portions of his life.

The novel begins with an encounter between Will and Harlen Bigbear. Harlen is an entrepreneur who has set Will up in his own photography business. Harlen is Will’s best friend, but there is something unpredictable about him. Harlen is much more dynamic than the stolid Will, and he lives life at a faster and more stressful pace. Beneath Will’s placid exterior, though, all sorts of psychological depths simmer. These are hinted at as Will remembers contemplating letters written long ago by his long-vanished father to his mother, Rose. Rose catches Will reading the letters and reprimands him. Will realizes that his life will remain unsettled until he comes to terms with the enigma of his father.

Harlen speaks to Will again soon after. This time, Harlen attempts to recruit Will to play on a local basketball team, the Medicine River Friendship Centre Warriors. The team’s star player, Clyde Whiteman, cannot play at the moment, and Harlen urges Will to substitute for him. Will is skeptical, doubting his own ability. His brother James, a gifted artist, seems to have all the talent in the family, whereas Will sees himself as merely an ordinary person who somehow muddles through life. Notwithstanding his fears, Will agrees to join the team. At forty, he is not exactly in championship-quality shape. Yet with the help of some coaxing from Harlen, he fits well onto the team.

Harlen also helps to activate Will’s private life. He points out that Louise Heavyman, who is the tax accountant for both men, is an attractive woman. None too subtly, Harlen urges Will to court Louise. Will is almost persuaded when, shockingly, he learns that Louise is pregnant by another man and is about to give birth. Whereas most men would be dissuaded at this point, Will takes the news in stride. He asks Louise for a date, not even mentioning her condition.

Soon, Louise calls Will to drive her to the hospital when her labor begins. There seems to be an unspoken understanding between Will and Louise that, despite the unusual circumstances of...

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Medicine River Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Davenport, Gary. “Fiction and the Furniture of Consciousness.” Sewanee Review 100 (Spring, 1992): 323-330. Compares Medicine River to works by James Welch, Wayne Johnson, Robert Olmstead, William Hoffman, and Ellen Akins. Discusses the relationship between the characters and the places these novelists create. Concludes that vivid imagery of “place” increases the value and authenticity of the novels.

Hemesath, James B. Review of Medicine River, by Thomas King. Library Journal 115 (August, 1990): 143. Addresses the novel’s use of humor and characterization, as well as its engagement with Native American concerns.

King, Thomas. “Godzilla Versus Post-Colonial.” World Literature Written in English 30 (Autumn, 1990): 10-16. Supplies some of the crucial intellectual background to the novel. King discusses the necessary differences between an inside and outside perspective on Native American concerns. King critiques the “postcolonial” approaches prevalent in current literary discussions of works by minorities, charging that they slight the full historical amplitude of Native American experience.

King, Thomas. Interview by Constance Rooke. World Literature Written in English (Autumn, 1990): 62-76. King places himself in Canadian, Native American, and literary contexts.

King, Thomas. “Thomas King.” Interview by Jace Weaver. Publishers Weekly 240 (March 8, 1993): 56. This interview emphasizes the themes of social comedy in King’s two novels. King makes valuable comments on how he is influenced by ideas of oral tradition.