Last Updated September 7, 2022.
Will drives January Pretty Weasel to her husband’s funeral because her arm is in a sling. January’s husband, Jake, was found in bed next to his shotgun, indicating that he died by suicide, but Harlen wonders if January shot him.
In a flashback, Will recounts growing up in Calgary with James and his mom. Their apartment building is mostly occupied by indigenous families, and Henry Goodrider makes a sign that reads “Bentham Reserve, Indians Only.” A white mom, Mrs. Oswald, takes the sign down and tells the boys that “White people do not live on reserves. . . . and no matter what your color, all of us here are Canadians.”
In the present, Will notes that everyone in Medicine River knows that Jake physically abused January. Although she regularly visits the emergency ward at the hospital, she always refused to file charges against her husband.
Will returns to his childhood memories. Mrs. Oswald tells everyone in the apartment building that her husband is dead and that she and her daughter are living in the apartment just until the estate is settled. One day, when James and Will are on the roof, they see Mrs. Oswald come up and walk to the edge. When she notices the boys, she waves at them and comments on the beautiful view.
Jake left a lengthy and neatly written suicide note filled with kind comments about January and their children. He was popular in the community, so his funeral is well attended, though January’s side of the family is noticeably absent.
In the past, Mrs. Oswald’s daughter, Lena, reveals that her father isn’t dead; in truth, he physically abuses her mom, and Mrs. Oswald is hiding from him. One day, Lena comes down to Will’s apartment and asks his mom for help. In the Oswalds’ apartment, Mrs. Oswald has just been assaulted, and Will’s mother looks at her for a long time before calling the ambulance.
In the present, as Will drives January home, she asks him if she’ll be arrested because she wrote the suicide note.
In the past, Mrs. Oswald spends four days in the hospital recovering from her injuries. She refers to the incident as her “accident.”
In the present, the RCMP officially declare Jake’s death a suicide, though the community speculates that January shot him. They spend about a month telling stories that portray Jake in a flattering way, and even January speaks kindly and fondly of him, as though she has forgotten about the abuse.
Harlen tells Will that Martha Bruised Head, who works as a secretary at the Friendship Center, saw Eddie Weaselhead throw a knife at Big John, the Center’s director. Big John saved the Center from financial collapse, but some of the more traditional members of the community don’t like that he wears three-piece suits and made the Center a smoke-free building. Eddie and Big John are loosely related.
Will recalls that his mother’s best friend from Calgary was Erleen Gulley. Every Thursday, Erleen would come to their apartment and the two women would go grocery shopping, bringing Will and James along. The boys would read the comic books from the magazine rack while the women shopped.
Eddie is the social director of the Friendship Center. He had applied for the director position, but Big John was raised on the reservation, unlike Eddie, so the position went to Big John.
Will goes to visit Eddie in jail, per a request from Harlen. Eddie says that Big John called him a “pretend Indian,” so he threw a jackknife that wasn’t even open.
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has also asked Will to go see Big John, who shares that Eddie called him an apple—that is, indigenous on the outside and white on the inside.
In the past, Erleen tells fun stories about the fishing trips she took with her sons and husband. James asks if her husband could take him and Will fishing, and Erleen says that her husband is dead from cancer. Later that day, after the women have gone shopping, Erleen tries to give Rose a package of nylons, but Rose won’t take them. Will comments that it was kind of her to buy such an expensive present and wonders if Erleen is rich, but Will’s mother quickly says that Erleen is poor, just like they are.
In the present, Big John spends two hours telling Will about the conflict he has been having with Eddie ever since becoming director. When Harlen hears about the tension, he resolves to help Eddie and Big John become friends. He decides to host a hand game at his house and invites the feuding men to attend.
In the past, Erleen and Rose bring out the girlishness in one another, teasing each other about their appearance and men. One day, when the women bring Will with them for their grocery shopping, Will realizes that he can no longer find them in the store. He thinks they have gone home without him and that he’ll have to walk back when a man in a suit materializes in front of Will and says that Rose and Erleen are upstairs. Will finds them sitting at a table with a policeman.
In the present, Big John and Eddie spend the party avoiding one another. Harlen announces that the guests are going to play a bone game, in which the players try to guess which bone is unmarked. Everyone places their bets, and Big John and Eddie square off. The game is tight, and the betting pot grows to contain a watch and two hundred dollars. At 2:00 a.m., the police come by because the neighbors have filed a noise complaint about all the drumming and the singing. Eddie proposes they play one more fast hand, with the winner taking all.
Big John adds his expensive tie to the pot, and Eddie adds a gaudy necklace. They play the hand, and Eddie wins it. The two men look at each other and suddenly begin laughing. Harlen is triumphant and congratulates himself for the idea of hosting the party.
In the past, Erleen has been caught shoplifting. She is questioned in another room by the police while Will stays with his mother and the man in the suit. When she emerges, the policeman escorts all three of them through the store to their car. On the way home, Erleen insists that she always keeps nylons and cosmetics in her purse while she shops in order to keep them separate from the food, and takes them out when she gets to the check out to pay for them. She wonders if she should sue the store for accusing her of shoplifting. The next time the women go shopping, they leave Will at home.
In the present, Harlen visits Will two weeks after the bone game and says that Big John has put Eddie’s necklace on his poodle, which he has renamed Weasel “because she sits up and begs whenever she wants attention.”
In the past, Erleen moves to Edmonton to be closer to her daughter, but she still visits Rose. Then Erleen has a stroke and dies before Rose has a chance to see her.
In the present, Big John and Eddie arrive at a truce, and much to Harlen’s joy, things return to normal.
During a basketball game, Raymond Little Buffalo injures Frankie. Ray is generally friendly, but on the court he can play dirty. Harlen explains that Ray is angry about losing a job in Calgary working for a big oil company.
Will recalls a time when, aged twenty-five, he was flying back from Toronto. Will strikes up a conversation with the woman across the aisle. When she asks what his father does, Will says he is an engineer. This becomes a habit of Will’s, and he invents a new father every time he arises in conversation.
In the present, Ray is elected to the board of the Native Friendship Center and decides to hold a fundraiser by selling calendars of indigenous Canadians. He wants Will to do the photography, and Will estimates that the work will cost six thousand dollars. According to Ray, the calendars sell out, but Will never receives money for his work. Through Harlen, Will learns that Ray has been deceptive about the success of the calendar fundraiser and misused the Friendship Center’s funds.
In the past, for Will’s twenty-seventh birthday, his mother sends him a shirt and a photo of his father.