One of the most sympathetic characters in Thomas King’s Medicine River is Harlen Bigbear. Harlen is an energetic, positive force in the community overall and specifically is a loyal friend to the novel’s protagonist, Will Sampson. Harlen’s gregarious personality makes him comfortable with a wide variety of people, and as he engenders their trust, he both learns and safeguards crucial information about them. His ability to empathize with others contributes to his being a sympathetic character.
Harlen is especially active is with his male friends and neighbors, such as by playing on the basketball team. By encouraging Will to join the group, he helps him get to know people on an equal footing, which in turn contributes toward their accepting the apparent newcomer rather than seeing him as an outsider.
Harlen also prompts the reader’s sympathy through his friendship with Louise Heavyman. Because he understands some of the complexities of her relationships and pregnancy, he can see the likely connections between her and Will. These insights lead in part to his encouraging Will to date Louise. In this regard, Harlen is important as a catalyst to the plot overall, especially Will’s settling down and the future happiness of the couple and Louise’s child.