Not much mystery here. Chapter Seven of Thomas King’s novel Medicine River spells out very clearly the nature of the pain that inhabits Harlen Bigbear's soul. Jonnie Prettywoman and Cecil Broadman’s wedding is an occasion for a gathering of members of the tribe, and Harlen is known for showing up at just about every event imaginable. As Will states in his narration,
“Harlen went to everything. He went to all the powwows. He went to all the funerals. He went to all the weddings, the births, and most of the court cases. Any time there was a gathering of two or more Indians in a hundred-mile radius of Medicine River, chances were one of them was Harlen.”
Harlen, however, is not at this wedding, and his absence becomes the subject of speculation among his friends. It falls to Bud to enlighten Will regarding Harlen’s past:
“When Harlan was a young man, he was pretty wild. Used to call him ‘Crazy Bear.’ Bud shook his head. “Can’t tell you how many times his father threw him out of the house.”
[Bud asks Will]: “You ever know his wife, Will?”
“Nice woman, Doris. Harlen settled right down when he married her. Stopped drinking just like that."
As the discussion continues, Bud continues to educate Will about his friend:
“’You know,’ said Bud Prettywoman, ‘It’s hard to get someone to stop drinking once they’ve started. Floyd figures that Harlen is depressed about Doris.’
‘Doris died fourteen years ago.’
‘Floyd figures that it’s what they call post-partum depression. You know, where something happens, but it doesn’t hit you until sometime later.’”
Harlen is a widower who has been unable to accept the death of his wife, a formidable woman, as described later in the novel (specifically, Chapter Sixteen). Alcohol abuse, of course, is an endemic problem on Native American reserves, and Harlen is no exception. He is an alcoholic, but was able to conform to the dictates of a strong-willed wife, Doris, whose passing left a void in Harlen’s life that he has been unable to replace. His friendship with Will is the most important relationship in his life now that his wife has passed, and he holds tight to that friendship. Without it, the demons that haunt him could well reemerge.