Last Updated on September 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1426
The novel opens with an excerpt of a letter addressed to Rose. The sender’s identity is not disclosed, but he inquires after Rose and “the boys” and says he is traveling through Calgary and might stop by to visit. These letter fragments continue throughout the chapter, interspersed as they are with the narrative.
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The voice then shifts to that of the narrator, Will, who describes Medicine River as an “unpretentious community” where he works as a photographer. Will is often visited by Harlen Bigbear, a man who knows everything going on in Medicine River and tries to help everyone as much as he can. Will notes that Harlen “had a strong sense of survival, not just for himself but for other people as well.” Though it’s only 10:00 a.m., Harlen insists on taking Will out to lunch.
At the restaurant, Harlen reveals that a set of letters from Will’s father were found in the home of someone who recently passed away. Harlen gives Will a thick package containing the letters.
The narrative shifts back to a letter excerpt, which reveals that Rose and the boys had to leave the reservation and move to Calgary.
Will admits that he has seen the letters before. When he was a child, he picked the lock on the chest in which his mother kept them stored back. Will’s mother found him reading the letters and was angry that he violated her privacy. Though she had never hit Will before, she slapped him. Later that evening, he insisted to his mother that they were his letters, too, because they were from his father. The next day, he checked to make sure his mother had not followed through on her threat of burning them, and he taped the letters to the bottom of the chest.
In a letter excerpt, Will’s father writes that he wants to visit the boys. He bought them a musical top and worries that they have forgotten him.
Harlen asks Will if he ever saw his father in the rodeo. Will never did, because his father left when he was only four years old. Will has no memories of his father at all but knows that his father was a white man. Though Will and James, Will’s brother, have uncles, they had no contact with their mother’s extended family throughout their childhood in Calgary because their mother married someone who wasn’t indigenous. They were not allowed to live on the reservation because of this marriage. Will’s cousin told Will that he’s “not Indian any more.” When Rose eventually decided to move back home, she settled in Medicine River, and Will reflects that it was her pride, not the law, that prevented her from returning to the reserve.
When Harlen suggests that Will reconnect with his dad, Will responds that his dad is dead and was a jerk anyways. As the two men leave the dinner, Harlen gives the package of letters to Will.
Just before Christmas, Harlen comes to Will’s studio with a basketball jersey for Will. Harlen has taken over as coach for the all-Native team at the Medicine River Friendship Center and needs someone to play center.
Will reflects that every person has a talent. His brother James is a gifted drawer. Will has played basketball because he is big and tall, but even having played throughout his school years, he is not good at the sport. Will tells Harlen that he is not a good athlete, he is not interested, and at forty years of age, he is too old, but Harlen dismisses Will’s excuses and convinces him to play.
As Will predicts, he is a bad player, but Harlen is a supportive coach and the team is good. One Sunday, driving back from a tournament, Harlen stops the van on the side of the road and orders the team to get out. He tells the men that they don’t try hard enough and that they’re not connected to the land. He points out Ninastiko, the Chief Mountain, in the distance, and reminds the men that they’re on Mother Earth.
In a flashback to Will’s childhood, Will remembers one of James’s best drawings, an eagle. Will boasts of James’s talents to Henry Goodrider, a neighbor boy. Henry is also a decent artist, though his style is more cartoonish. One day, Will shows Henry a box of James’s drawings. Henry takes out a pen and defaces them.
Back in the present, Harlen visits Will and asks how he can motivate the team. Harlen decides they need a leader and that he himself will start playing for the team to set a good example.
Harlen is a horrible player, but he commits fully to the task. In their next game, Harlen plays in place of Will. The team wins, and Will is confronted with his past as a mediocre athlete. He leaves the team to play the rest of the tournament on their own and drives home to Medicine River.
In a return to the flashback, James finds the drawings that Henry defaced. James goes to the butcher’s shop and gets a big piece of paper, on which he draws an eagle. Will helps James hang the picture from their bedroom window. The drawing stays there until the weather renders it to tatters.
In the present, Harlen visits Will’s studio. He is on crutches from an injury he sustained in one of the games. He reports that Louise Heavyman came to watch the game and asked where Will was, and he adds that the men on the team look up to him like a brother and want him to come back and play with them.
It’s tax season, and Harlen and Will both have Louise Heavyman do their taxes. Harlen tells Louise that she should think about getting married now that she has established her own business. He begins dropping hints to Will that he should think about marrying Louise. Will knows that Harlen means well and isn’t bothered by Harlen’s meddling.
During Harlen’s next visit to Will’s studio, he shares that Louise is “probably” getting married to a Cree man from Edmonton. For the next month, Harlen keeps Will apprised of Louise’s relationship with her boyfriend.
A few months later, Harlen calls Will at 2:00 a.m. to report that Louise isn’t getting married and that she’s pregnant. Louise said that she wanted a baby but didn’t want to be married. Harlen suggests that Will takes Louise out to lunch.
The next day, Will asks Louise out, though she knows that he’s doing it because Harlen asked him to. After their meal, Will asks Louise to go to the movies on Saturday night. They have a good time together, and soon they are seeing one another regularly, albeit as friends, not lovers.
Will gets increasingly protective of Louise as her pregnancy progresses. When she goes into labor, she calls Will to take her to the hospital. One of the nurses mistakenly assumes that Will is Louise’s husband and directs him to her room. The maternity ward is in the south wing of the hospital and Will tries to muster the courage to visit Louise when a different nurse directs him back to the waiting room. The men from Will’s basketball team arrive with Harlen to keep Will company while they wait for the baby to arrive.
Finally, a nurse announces that Louise had a baby girl and invites Will, whom she addresses as “Mr. Heavyman,” to come see her. As Will holds the baby, the nurse asks if they’ve chosen a name. Will thinks of the sign on the maternity ward and jokingly says that she’ll be called South Wing. The nurse asks if that’s a traditional Indian name and then tells Will that he can take the baby to Louise in her room.
Louise’s room is filled with visitors who all want to see the baby. Will leaves, but not before noticing that the nurse wrote “South Wing Heavyman” on the bassinet.
That evening, Will returns to the hospital and brings South Wing a stuffed penguin toy. Louise has named the baby Wilma, but everyone is already calling her South Wing. Will stands at the window to the nursery watching the baby and when a nurse asks him which one is his, he indicates South Wing.