• From Medicine River, address the following:
  • Identify what you believe to be the major conflict in the novel. Explain what the conflict is over or between and who or what is involved.
  • A theme is identified as a topic or subject. The novel deals with many topics, but what you learn about the topics is important to understanding the novel and what the author may be trying to teach us about people, society, life, government, etc. Identify one theme in the novel and explain what you learned as a result.

  •  As the narrator, Will uses humour to characterize Lionel James in a sympathetic way in Chapter 12. Give one example of humour that Lionel brings into one of his stories.

  • One of the themes in the book is how identity is complex and defined by different aspects beyond just one. Identity is also a conflict that can be seen in the novel. The idea of a credit card causing problems for coyote to get a room at a hotel is humorous because it shows how times have changed. The story about Coyote going to the west coast to get fire, but before he needed a credit card, shows that he was free to travel around back then. This further emphasizes that Native Americans used to be free and were not restricted like they are today.

    Expert Answers

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    Lionel James is shown to possess the fundamental gift of storytelling.  On one hand, his embrace of the oral tradition reflects Native American heritage.  However, Will characterizes Lionel as going beyond the caricature.  Lionel talks about his travels and uses humor to reflect the condition of being that modern Native Americans experience.  His stories help to illuminate the challenges that are faced, but using humor as a way to generate thoughtful reflection.  One such example is when Lionel describes his experiences in trying to get a hotel room in Ottawa.  When he talks about having a "reservation" but still being denied a room because he didn't have a credit card, it is a reflection of modern Native American identity.  He has a "reservation" for the hotel room, but also has a "reservation" in which he is supposed to live far from Ottawa.  When he furthers his story, it is a merging of the old Native American traditions, along with a modern sense of alienation that is intrinsic to their narrative:  "I told the story about how Coyote went over to the West Coast to get some fire because he was cold.  Good thing he went travelling in the old days before he needed a credit card."  This use of humor reflects what it means to be a Native American in the modern setting, something that merges past and present in a statement of what is from what was.

    Coyote being free to travel before the imposition of a credit card was placed upon him is metaphorical of the conflict facing the characters in the story.  The characterizations in the story struggle with the collision between subjective reality and external imposition.  On one level, this can be seen in King's construction of Native American identity.  The collision between the outside world and the internal sensibilities of the characters is evident.  Rose is one such example, having to navigate her own hope in the midst of external hurt imposed upon her.  This is seen in both cultural terms as she is shunned by her tribe for her involvement with an outsider, and in her own identity in dealing with abandonment.  Will demonstrates this in his need to understand the past in light of the present and future, seeking to chart his own emotional development while being straddled in both constructions of time.  David Plume embodies this conflict on a political level in his strong political stance in favor of Native American rights.  In these settings, there is a dominant conflict seen in the coyote story where subjective aspiration is fundamentally challenged by external reality.  Being able to address this conflict defines the novel's characterization and thematic content.

    I would suggest that one of the themes that is generated from the exploration of this conflict is how individual identity is defined a plurality of ways.  Identity is not singular or monistic.  King shows that one of the traits in the modern setting is that identity is complex, filled with different aspects that define who we are and what we do.  Will, Harlen, and Louise are Native American, but this is not their sole basis for identity.  They are defined by their emotional hopes and aspirations, their own sense of personal hurt and hope, as well as traits that go beyond cultural notions of the good.  In presenting characters who eat pizza, watch football, struggle with what it is to love, and how to communicate emotionally when psychological scars might inhibit it are all aspects of their identity.  Along with their cultural background, their identities are shown to be complex.  In the final analysis, this becomes critical in how King defines the conflict that the Coyote experiences.  He might need a credit card to travel, but there is little to indicate that he cannot adapt to both it and the need to find wood.  In the modern setting, identity is complex and not reduced to one or two elements.  It is in this light where one of the themes of the story becomes thought- provoking and quite reflective in the reader's mind.

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