Medicine River Summary

Medicine River is a 1989 novel by Thomas King about Will Sampson, a man who returns to the Blackfoot community in Medicine River where he grew up.

  • Will and James were raised by their mother, Rose, in Medicine River. Will knew almost nothing about his father.
  • As an adult, Will has returned to Medicine River to build a life for himself. Will joins a basketball team and dates a woman named Louise Heavyman, acting as a father figure for her daughter.
  • Will deepens ties with his community and gains a stronger sense of his heritage.

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

Medicine River is the story of Will Sampson, a boy raised in a town called Medicine River who returns for the death of his mother after he left and built a successful career as an adult. The novel focuses on the entire Blackfoot community in Medicine River as well as Will's history with the town. Much of the book is broken into memories or anecdotes about Will and the people of Medicine River.

Will did not know his father; he thinks about this as he reads letters between his parents, and his mother, Rose, disapproves. She does not want him to know anything about his father even though he has an existential longing to better understand the absent man. This sets him up for a lifetime of drawing his identity from his mother and the community, rather than from his father. He is very influenced by the Blackfoot background he has, even though Rose and her sons were forced to leave the reservation when he was a child due to her marrying an outsider who later abandoned her.

As an adult, Will is a photographer. When he returns to Medicine River to go to Rose's funeral, he spends time with his best friend, Harlan. Harlan also helped Will set up his own business and encourages him to substitute in for a man who is not able to play in a game for the Medicine River Friendship Center Warriors, the local basketball team. He decides to join, integrating more deeply into the community.

During his visit, the star basketball player is found dead of apparent suicide. However, the community doubts that he actually killed himself because of his abusive actions toward his wife. Harlan and Will investigate to find out whether or not Jake killed himself and eventually discover that he did. However, his suicide note was a fake written by his wife to deflect suspicion away from herself.

Another murder that touches Medicine River and Will is one said to have been committed by David Plume of the American Indian Movement. A man who jeered at him was murdered, and while Will believes David did it, he understands how he could have been driven to that. In this way, he better understands the Blackfoot side of himself.

While in Medicine River, Will falls for Louise Heavyman, an accountant who is pregnant with someone else's child. Despite the complication, Will continues to see her and is even present at the birth of her child. When her daughter is born, she names her Wilma.

Will leaves to travel with the basketball team and remembers another relationship with a woman named Susan. When he finds out Susan is actually married, he realizes that the life he associated her with is not as wholesome and sophisticated as he thought. It helps him understand the goodness of Louise. When he returns to the town, he becomes more invested in Louise and Wilma. However, when Louise leaves to visit Wilma's father, Will is concerned that she will either not return or not want to be with Will.

In the end, Will never does find out about his father and is still somewhat torn by his status as a half-Blackfoot man. However, he ends up with Louise and Wilma and is intent on creating a better future for them all.

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