Medicine River Themes

The main themes in Medicine River are identity and belonging, finding family, brotherhood, and light and dark.

  • Identity and belonging: The novel centers around Will’s search for belonging after years of rootlessness.
  • Finding family: As an adult, Will forges new bonds, creating a sense of kinship with others in Medicine River.
  • Brotherhood: The novel explores Will’s relationships with his actual brother, James, as well as his figurative brother, Harlen.
  • Light and dark: The motif of light and dark is used to explore Will’s personal growth from adverse experiences.


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Last Updated November 3, 2023.

Identity and Belonging

The child of a Blackfoot woman and a white man, Will is constantly negotiating where and how he fits in. When Rose decides to move home from Calgary, Will’s cousin Maxwell informs him that the family isn’t allowed to live on the reserve because they’re “not Indian anymore.” Though Will can’t even remember his father, his shadow looms over Will as he struggles to make sense of who he is and where he belongs. His fascination with the letters and photographs he finds in Rose’s trunk speaks to his desire to feel connected to his family and his ancestry. As he notes, “My mother was in most of the pictures, and while I didn’t know who the rest of the people were, I supposed they were family.”

Will’s profession as a photographer connects to the only way he has found to make sense of who he is: looking back at a life he doesn’t remember and lives that unfolded and ended before he was born. By photographing others, Will helps them claim their identity as people who belong to families and communities. In doing so, he gets to vicariously experience their feelings of belonging. His constant curiosity when others tell stories of his father speaks to his unending and insatiable hunger to feel connected to a man he calls a “drunk jerk.” Even though Will knows his father was far from perfect, the fact that they are connected by blood continuously draws Will back to his mission to better understand his heritage.

Finding Family

His father having left when he was only four years old, Will finds himself having to make his own family throughout his life. As a child, Will identifies Rose and James as his family. However, with Rose deceased and James traveling the world, Will creates a new family for himself in Medicine River.

Though Will and Louise never clearly define their relationship, they function as a couple for much of the novel, and Will is mistaken several times for being South Wing’s father. Notably, he doesn’t correct the wrong assumption, even claiming himself as her father when she’s first born. Harlen fills in for James’s absence, functioning as a brother to Will, cajoling him into adventures, meddling in his love life, giving him advice, and helping him assimilate back into the Blackfoot community when he returns from Toronto.

Chapter 15 functions as an extended metaphor for Will’s integration into the indigenous community. Though the original purpose of the photography session was to get a portrait of Joyce Blue Horn’s family, it turns into a photograph that represents nearly every facet of the community: Louise and South Wing, the men from the basketball team and their families, the workers at the Friendship Center, and more. By the time Will actually takes the photograph, Joyce is insisting that Will gets in it, too, inviting him into the group and thereby adopting him as part of the family. At the end of that chapter, Will hangs the group photograph next to the photo of James, Rose, and him, symbolizing the new family he has assembled for his new life.


Though James frequently appears in the novel, he only ever shows up in Will’s memories, in writing (through the postcard he sends), and as a voice (when he calls Will the day after Christmas). Will spends much of the novel reflecting on his relationship with James, which is complex.

At times, Will was fiercely protective and proud of James when they were children, such as when he showed off James’s drawings to Henry and bragged about...

(This entire section contains 1102 words.)

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his artistic ability. At other times, Will is cruel. His laughing at James’s distress over losing the pink rubber ball in the river is a particularly unkind moment, and Will finds himself apologizing for it nearly thirty years later. Without Rose to bring the brothers together, they drift apart. That they haven’t seen one another since Rose’s funeral indicates the fraying bonds that tie them together.

In James’s absence, Will finds brotherhood in his friendship with Harlen. Harlen is the catalyzing force of action in almost every chapter of the novel, bringing spontaneity, adventure, and friendship into Will’s life: he gets Will to join the basketball team, urges him to get closer with Louise when she becomes pregnant, stands on top of a bridge with him, takes him canoeing, and even convinces him to move back to Medicine River from Toronto and open his photography studio there. He is the antithesis to Will’s stoic and staid personality, helping Will become more social and find a sense of belonging in Medicine River. Notably, Harlen is distant from his own brother, as well. When Joe Bigbear comes to town, Harlen feels inferior in comparison to Joe’s life of travel and exciting stories. He, too, finds a brother in his friendship with Will.

Light and Dark

Will’s profession as a photographer can be interpreted in a variety of ways. In photography, the image printed on plastic film is called a “negative,” in which the lightest areas in the image appear dark and the darkest areas in the image appear light. Negatives are used to make positives—which are what we know as photographs—by using a solution that reexposes the negative and redevelops it. This process can be likened to Will’s own growth and self-development. From his negatives—an absent father, a forced exile from the reservation, a lonely childhood, a relationship that turned out to be an affair with a married woman—Will is developing himself into something positive: a loyal friend to Harlen, an attentive father figure to South Wing, a caring lover to Louise, and a generous member of the Medicine River community.

Light and dark also appear as a motif throughout the novel. At the end of chapter 17, when Harlen and Will go canoeing, they bring the canoe “back through the dark water and into the light.” In chapter 7, when Will remembers how Harlen convinced him to open a photography studio in Medicine River, he remembers his nighttime arrival and seeing Harlen standing in the terminal, lit up by the lights in the building. And in the novel’s closing sentences, the “day had started out overcast” but “the winter sun was coming out now.” Will’s constant movement out of darkness and into light shows his continual development as he gains a greater understanding of who he is and how he wants to live his life.


Chapter Summaries