Chapters 10–12 Summary

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Last Updated on September 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1263

Chapter 10

Harlen visits Will to announce that tomorrow is South Wing’s first birthday and to propose that he and Will go shopping to buy a present for his “daughter.” When they exhaust all the stores in Medicine River without finding anything, Harlen suggests they go to the reservation to look for one. Will knows that Harlen is taking him to see Martha Oldcrow, known in the community as the “marriage doctor,” because Harlen wants Will and Louise to become a couple. 

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Harlen asks Martha for a “real Indian rattle” to give to South Wing. When Martha asks Will if he is South Wing’s father, he says he was there when she was born. Martha gives Will a leather rattle, sings a song, and tells him that everything will work out. 

At South Wing’s birthday party the next day, Louise blushes when she opens Will’s gift. Then she reaches into her apron pocket and pulls out one of Martha Oldcrow’s rattles, which she also bought for South Wing. She admits that Bertha took her shopping yesterday and wonders if Harlen took Will shopping so that they would be set up to buy twinning gifts. 

The party guests leave, but Will stays behind. Louise kisses him twice and asks if he ever had a girlfriend before. He mentions Susan from Toronto.

In the middle of the night, South Wing wakes up crying in her crib. As Will tends to her, he picks up one of the rattles off the floor. As he watches her fall back asleep, he tries to remember the song that Martha sang. 

Chapter 11

In the spring, Will receives a letter from James describing his most recent travels in New Zealand. Though James has sent his brother postcards from all over the world, the return address is always Bentham Reserve, the nickname for the apartments the brothers grew up in. 

Harlen’s brother, Joe Bigbear, arrives in town, and there’s a large gathering at a bar to welcome him. Harlen’s not there. Joe convinces Will to try one of the cigars he brought, and resumes telling a story about his time in Australia. Everyone roars with laughter as he recounts his adventures. 

Eventually, Harlen arrives, holding himself stiffly and speaking with a snap in his voice. Will asks Floyd what’s wrong between the two brothers, and Floyd replies that they never got along well because Harlen’s “pretty straight” and “Joe’s done it all.” In Floyd’s opinion, Joe is famous and so Harlen struggles with being overshadowed by his sibling. 

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Knowing Harlen as he does, believing him to be one of the most charitable and kind people he has ever known, Will is unconvinced by Floyd’s explanation about the tension between the brothers. 

Joe tells a story about when he and Harlen were kids. Harlen suggested that they climb a bridge and jump from the top. Joe admits to being scared when he saw the river twenty feet below them, so he jumped right then. When he surfaced, he saw Harlen holding on to the bridge with one hand and waving to him with the other as he floated three miles down river with the current. When Joe returned home, sopping wet, Harlen was reading a book on the couch and asked Joe if he enjoyed his swim. The story makes Harlen chuckle. 

Around 2:00 a.m., Joe, Harlen, and Will drive to the reservation. Harlen suggests that Will stay in the car, because he and Joe are just going for a walk, but Will joins them. Finally Harlen reveals where they are: at the trestle bridge, which they’re going to climb. Will insists that their plan is crazy, because the bridge is more than one hundred feet high. However, the brothers are determined in their mission. 

The men begin climbing, with Joe at the lead and Will at the rear. He yells to the brothers that they’re crazy, but the three men keep climbing. Finally, they’re standing on a steel girder twenty feet above Medicine River. That’s when Joe announces that it’s time to jump. When Will balks, Joe says that the only other way to get down is to climb, and the climb down is a lot harder than the climb up. 

Harlen suggests that Joe jumps first so he can stay behind and encourage Will to jump. Joe steps off the girder and screams all the way down to the river, landing with a splash and finally surfacing. As Harlen and Will sit on the bridge and watch, Joe floats down the river and around the horseshoe bend. 

Will asks Harlen if he has ever jumped off the bridge. Harlen tries to avoid answering the question, but Will realizes the truth: Joe jumped, and Harlen never did. 

Suddenly resolved, Will is determined to jump. The wind is blowing strong, and Harlen urges Will to climb down the bridge with him. Will announces again that he’s going to jump but remains on the girder. Eventually, the two men climb down the bridge together. At the bottom, they say they’ll jump the next time. 

Joe Bigbear leaves for Italy, and Will and Harlen never tell anyone about what happened at the bridge. They agree that Joe has his own way of doing things and that they have theirs. Will never returns to the bridge, his appetite for adventure having been sated by that first outing when he clung to the steel girdler like a “barn owl . . . hanging on for dear life.” 

Chapter 12

Lionel James, one of the elders on the reservation, and Harlen visit Will in his studio. Lionel knew Will’s father and tells Will that he looks more like his mother. 

Lionel travels a lot, giving speeches about indigenous traditions and culture, because “white people seem real interested in knowing about Indians.” At his last conference, when he checked into a hotel, he was asked for a credit card. Not having one, he offered cash, but the hotel wouldn’t give him a room without a credit card. Wanting to be a “modern Indian,” Lionel has come to Will seeking advice on obtaining a credit card. 

Will finds out that Lionel has neither a checking nor a savings account, nor any involvement with a bank, so he offers to walk with Lionel to the local bank to open an account and obtain a credit card. 

Pleased with the help, Lionel tells a story about Will’s mother and father going to a restaurant after a rodeo, at which point Rose’s pregnancy caused her to throw up. To save Rose from embarrassment, Will’s father made a comment about the chicken and the restaurant paid for their meals in addition to giving them two tickets to the rodeo. 

Lionel admits that all his traveling is tiring, and maybe he should just stay home, in which case he doesn’t need a credit card after all. Harlen suggests that Will take pictures of a “real world-famous Indian,” so Will takes several portraits of Lionel. 

The next week, Will delivers the portraits to Lionel at his home on the reservation. They sit together in the yard, and Lionel tells more of his stories, including one about Will’s father hiding Will in a clothes basket at the laundromat to play a prank on Rose by convincing her that he had put Will in the wash. Lionel thinks it’s crazy that people enjoy hearing his stories, because it’s like living in the past.

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Chapters 7–9 Summary

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Chapters 13–15 Summary