Medicine Walk Summary

Medicine Walk is a 2014 novel about Franklin Starlight, a First Nations teenager who journeys into the wilderness with his dying father.

  • Franklin leaves the rural home he shares with the old man who raised him to see his biological father, Eldon, who is dying after a lifetime of alcoholism.
  • Eldon asks Franklin to lead him on a forty-mile journey through the backcountry and bury him in the manner of an Ojibway warrior, and Franklin agrees.
  • Along the way, Eldon finally tells Franklin the story of his life, revealing the identity of Franklin’s mother and of the old man.

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Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1425

Franklin Starlight, who is referred to as “the kid” throughout much of the novel, is summoned to town from his home in the mountains of British Columbia, where he lives on a farm with the man simply referred to as “the old man.” His biological father, who lives in town, wants to see sixteen-year-old Franklin, though the old man doesn’t strongly encourage this journey. Nevertheless, bound by a sense of duty, Franklin embarks on a trip to Parson’s Gap.

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Franklin finds his father, Eldon, living in a broken-down boarding house, clutter spilling out of every corner of his room. They go out to dinner, where Franklin has to pay a tab before they can order. Eldon tells him that he is dying and that he wants Franklin to take him on a forty-mile journey so that he can be buried like a proper warrior, which he believes connects him to his Ojibway heritage. Eldon’s liver is failing, and Franklin notes how drastically his appearance has changed since the last time they met. Although Eldon has been a sporadic presence in Franklin’s life, he agrees to help his father fulfill his dying wish. Because his strength is waning, Eldon rides Franklin’s mare while Franklin walks alongside them.

Eldon is immediately impressed with his son’s outdoor skills. Franklin doesn’t even take food for their journey because he is confident that he can catch or harvest what they need. Indeed, he proves himself quite capable, catching fish with simple lines and cooking them over the fire.

When a storm approaches, Franklin and Eldon seek temporary shelter at Becka Charlie’s meager cabin. She welcomes them after making sure that Eldon’s illness isn’t contagious; she has personal knowledge of the effects of alcohol addiction. While they are at her cabin, Eldon tells them the story of losing his parents. After his father was killed in the war, his mother became intimate with a man named Lester Jenks, who soon began abusing her. One evening, her screams were particularly violent, and Eldon and his best friend, Jimmy, ran into the house to rescue her. Jimmy hit Jenks hard enough that Eldon’s mother thought he had killed him at first; she defended Jenks and told Eldon that he had to leave. He never saw his mother again.

This enrages Franklin, who has always longed for connections to his biological family. He feels that his father cheated him out of a chance to ever know his maternal grandmother. Becka later stresses to Franklin that Eldon showed bravery in sharing this story with them; after all, a man’s personal stories are all he really has in the end.

Becka gives the pair a few supplies to take with them on their journey, including a natural medicinal concoction to help with Eldon’s illness and dying. She tells Franklin that it will help when Eldon’s symptoms become particularly tough.

As they continue on their journey, Franklin is distracted by all that is happening and doesn’t notice bear signs along their path. They turn a bend, and a juvenile bear faces them in the trail. Franklin helps his father from the horse and then faces off with the bear. Eventually, the bear turns and runs off, and Eldon is again impressed with his son’s courage and knowledge of wildlife.

As they walk, Franklin is reminded of the few times he saw his father when he was younger. Eldon sometimes summoned him to come to town and visit him, but things never worked out well. Once, the old man had visited Eldon with Franklin, and they had found him so drunk that he could barely stand. The next year, a fishing trip turned into a disaster when Eldon fell into the water and Franklin realized that his father had been sneaking whiskey throughout the day; he was so drunk that Franklin had to drive them back home. He was only ten at the time. A couple of years later, Eldon had promised to spend an incredible Christmas with his son. Franklin gradually grew excited, only to have his hopes crushed when Eldon never showed up.

Franklin and Eldon finally complete their forty-mile journey, reaching the ridge where Eldon wants to be buried. He tells Franklin that he’d once visited this place when he was young and felt like he really belonged there.

Eldon’s next story centers around his time in the Korean War; he had enlisted with Jimmy. The two enjoyed the physical demands of training and were assigned to a reconnaissance mission. Before leaving, Jimmy made Eldon swear that if he were killed in the war, Eldon would give him a proper warrior’s burial. They wore each other’s blood into the battle. During the ensuing mayhem, Jimmy was shot and began screaming in agony. As he laid by Jimmy’s side, blood pooling around them, Eldon became terrified that Jimmy’s screams would give away their location and put his own life in jeopardy. Eldon held a knife to Jimmy’s stomach, and Jimmy nodded his approval. Eldon twisted the knife into Jimmy, hearing the final breath leave his best friend’s body. He abandoned Jimmy, and his body was never found afterward. Eldon failed to honor Jimmy’s final wishes, though he had sworn to do so.

Eldon tells Franklin how he met Angie, who was Franklin’s mother. He was at Charlie’s, a favorite bar, when he noticed a beautiful woman dancing. Eventually, she made her way to a table which he shared with another man, Bunky. Although Eldon immediately fell in love with her, Angie only had eyes for Bunky.

A week later, Bunky hired Eldon to put up a fence around his farm. Angie was now living with Bunky and brought lunch out to him each day. When Bunky wasn’t around, she shared many of her own stories, including her own losses. She told Eldon that she was Cree and that he could trust her. Eldon never opened up to her about the deep pain he had experienced.

Eventually, Angie and Eldon became intimate, and Bunky walked in on them having sex. Bunky was devastated; he deeply loved Angie and wanted the best for her. He gave the couple a truck and some money and forbade Eldon from drinking, telling him that he had to take care of the woman they both loved. Eldon held to his promise for a while, but when Angie became pregnant, everything changed. He was suddenly filled with fear and turned again to alcohol. One night, he stumbled into the driveway after a drinking binge to find the door to their cabin ajar. Angie was inside, writhing in pain. In his drunken state, Eldon drove her to the hospital, where Angie died during childbirth.

Unable to face raising a child who reminded him so much of Angie, and incapable of giving up his addictions, Eldon returned to Bunky, asking him to raise the baby. Bunky finally agreed, forbidding Eldon from coming around the baby when he was drunk. Bunky named the infant after Benjamin Franklin. Eldon agreed, quickly finding it impossible to stay sober enough to visit. Bunky loved Franklin and swore to raise him to be a good man; he also promised to try to honor Angie by teaching Franklin as much as he could about his American Indian culture, though Bunky was not Indian himself.

This is Eldon’s final story. Franklin is devastated upon learning that his mother has died and that he will never know her. That night, he holds Eldon through his final painful battle and listens as life leaves his father’s body. He gets up the next morning and digs the grave his father had requested, giving Eldon the warrior’s burial that he had desired.

Franklin then journeys home, where he finds the old man, whom he now realizes is Bunky from his father’s stories, waiting for him. The two fall into a familiar routine, which Franklin finds comforting. He tells Bunky that his father has told him the entire truth. He verbally recognizes the old man as his true father, and the words bring tears to Bunky’s eyes. That night, Franklin rides his horse out through the woods, where he sees a long line of ghostly people travelling through, people he has never known but whom he feels connected to. He then rides back home, where he knows the old man is waiting for him.

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