Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Medicine River is preoccupied with Native American themes, but this preoccupation is voiced with an almost spectacular unobtrusiveness. Prominent Native American writers of the late twentieth century have stressed the need to dispel degrading and condescending stereotypes of contemporary Native Americans. Works such as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) and James Welch’s The Indian Lawyer (1990) defy conventional notions of Native Americans as mere hapless, residual victims, lingering on in reservations after the near-obliteration of their culture by triumphant Europeans. Welch and Erdrich show Native Americans flourishing and thriving in markedly contemporary contexts, living lives much like the rest of mainstream Americans, yet these characters are never totally assimilated. They never forget (nor are they allowed to forget) their distinctive heritage.

This variety of representation is King’s goal as well. King, though, weaves the themes of modernity and assimilation so deftly into the fabric of the book’s plot that he does not even need to be overt about it. Will, Harlen, Louise, and the other residents of Medicine River are unmistakably Native American. Yet their guiding pursuits in life—eating pizza, watching football on television, and playing basketball—are dramatically antithetical to received expectations of Native American interests. The people of Medicine River participate as thoroughly in the modern world as do any of their Europe-descended neighbors.

At a party Will attends with his then-girlfriend Susan during his Toronto years, he meets someone who is surprised that Will is a photographer. This is because the partygoer has been exposed to...

(The entire section is 704 words.)