Individualism and collectivism are traits at the heart of the protagonist’s identity in Medicine...
In Medicine River, Thomas King crafts the main protagonist, Will Sampson, in a lean, skillful manner. Will’s memories contain restrained sensory descriptions. These descriptions point to the author’s intentions in crafting Will’s identity.
Individualism and collectivism are traits at the heart of the protagonist’s identity in Medicine River. Thomas King is known for focusing on the collective when crafting the identity of native characters. He often identifies individualism as a defining quality of non-natives. For this reason, when addressing how the author crafts Will’s identity through the senses, it might be most accessible through the framework of individualistic versus collective identity.
There is no doubt that interplay of individual experience and collective experience shape Will’s identity. When examining sensorial memory, collectivism and individualism are particularly relevant. When characters perceive something through their senses, one might expect them to do so as an individuals rather than collectively. Archetypal descriptions of sensory experiences are often subjective, personal, and specific to an individual.
This would be normative from a non-native perspective. But we must consider the context of this book—specifically, that it is written by a Native author about a Native community. Many Native cultures tend to be more collective. It is useful to compare and contrast how sense memories are constructed as individual and collective experiences. This gives the reader a window into Will’s identity.
It is worth examining the ways in which Will describes food. Taste memories provide useful illustrations of the interplay of Will’s collective and individualistic identity. Is he describing what it tastes like to him? Or is he describing a more collective experience? His personal experience of taste would suggest a more individualistic identity. Food as a collective experience speaks to Will’s nascent native identity.
You might want to pay particular attention to descriptions of foods the protagonist craves or shuns, instances of Will eating alone versus sharing a meal, and his inclination or unwillingness to eat foods specific to a certain area or culture. All of these guide us towards a better understanding of the individual and collective aspects of Will’s identity. For a good example of this, take a closer look at the way food is described during Jonnie Prettywoman and Cecil Broadman’s wedding at the beginning of chapter seven.
Another approach would be to consider how Will’s memories of orature shape his identity. Of all the five senses, examples of orature are the most abundant. It is not surprising that there is such a focus on orature in this novel. Thomas King, in his well-known essay, Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial, describes various examples of native writers cleverly crafting written works that reflect the influence of “oral literature.” Oral history is incredibly important in native cultures. The ways in which Will engages and identifies with orature provide the reader with clues about his identity.
In the novel, the sharing of stories expresses cultural tradition. A community with a rich oral history would almost certainly produce a number of adept storytellers. Lionel James, for example, is a professional storyteller. He is well respected and stories are often told about him. We see this in chapter 12:
I didn’t know Lionel James very well, but I had heard stories. Harlen said he was almost one hundred years old. Bertha said he had had a bad drinking problem, spent some time in jail. Harlen said Lionel had been to some of the old-time Sun Dances and had the scars on his chest to prove it. Bertha said he got those in a car crash. But whatever he had been in his youth, he was one of the most respected men on the reserve.
Will knows that having so many stories told about and by a person is culturally significant. This speaks to his identity within the community on the reserve. Will’s identity as both an insider and an outsider in the native community is evident in his perception of orature.
For example, he describes Harlen as a person obsessed with uncovering and sharing stories about local people. But Will also shares this habit. He identifies this native trait in Harlen but not himself; he doesn’t seem to recognize the extent to which he embodies the tribe’s culture. Identifying and examining Will’s relationship with and understanding of orature is another useful way to explore how the author crafts the protagonist’s identity, using sensed memory.
Whether examining taste and orature, or aroma, texture, and sight in this novel, the reader will find numerous examples of Thomas King crafting characters through the senses. Taste and orature are two accessible examples. But any of the senses can provide an entry point into understanding Will’s character.