Last Updated on April 20, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 790
In some Indigenous cultures, a medicine walk is traditionally revered as a means of providing insights to life’s deepest questions. Some tribes particularly encourage young people to participate in these walks, looking to nature to provide solace and guidance as they search for personal clarity. Participants are encouraged not just to walk endlessly but to also be still, truly taking the time to connect with the elements of nature and to allow time for healing.
This is the story of Franklin Starlight’s medicine walk. He shoulders the burden of being disconnected from his heritage and from his biological family, never being quite certain of his place in the world and searching every woman’s face with the hope of one day finding his mother and, thus, a part of himself. On this journey, Franklin is given those connections by a father who has spent the entirety of Franklin’s life avoiding the responsibilities that should come with his role. Franklin’s physical journey is deeply connected to the natural world; he turns to the river for sustenance and to the forest for consolation. Along the way, he pauses to listen to his father’s own stories of loss and heartache and eventually arrives at an acceptance of the man his father is—and the one he has never been.
Eldon has been a whisper in the background of Franklin’s life, a figure who has shown up periodically, stuffing some money into a jar in the old man’s house and typically leaving in a drunken cacophony. Yet on this medicine walk, Franklin learns of the grief that Eldon has never shared with anyone else. He learns of his father’s regret that he had abandoned his own mother. He hears of the torment Eldon felt after he drove a knife into the chest of his best friend during an impossibly difficult mission in the Korean War.
Eldon’s life provides the hard lesson that some men never rise to overcome the obstacles they face in life. Instead of persevering through adversity, Eldon’s survival strategy is retreat. He retreats from the conflict with his mother, he retreats on the battlefield, and he retreats when he realizes he is going to become a father. Eldon makes no excuses for the way he has navigated his life, and Becka Charlie acknowledges the bravery inherent in his honest revelations at the end of his life. He could have chosen to die with his deepest pains hidden, yet he allows his son the opportunity to fully understand why he has been such a fleeting presence in his life. This is also a medicine walk for Eldon as he journeys toward his imminent death, confessing his sins; the journey provides a means for him to acknowledge the myriad ways in which he has failed the people in his life.
Bunky, on the other hand, is a testament to the transformational power of a father’s self-sacrificing love. Like Eldon, he sees Angie in Franklin. However, instead of running from this pain, Bunky consciously decides to honor the woman he loved by taking responsibility for her son, teaching him how to become a “good man.” Angie recognized Bunky’s innate heroic nature and found it compelling enough to move in with him. Bunky is a hero in the most ordinary of ways, yet the daily sacrifices he makes in order to nurture Franklin, and give him the stability that Eldon could not, allow Franklin to choose a more hopeful path.
Part of the purpose of Franklin’s medicine walk is to heal the sense of emptiness that he has always felt, particularly regarding his mother’s absence from his life. Eldon’s stories allow Franklin to accept the past so that he can more fully embrace his future. And in doing so, he recognizes that he has not walked through life alone; he has always had a father guiding him. Though they don’t share a biological connection, Bunky has taught Franklin everything he knows about the things he values most: nature, sacrifice, goodness, and forgiveness.
In the final scene, Franklin realizes his connection to a long line of Indigenous people whom he will never know. Their shouts reach Franklin full of “hope and good humour”; he represents their connection to the future. In their shadowy faces, Franklin sees a history and a community that reaches far beyond himself and Eldon. Franklin raises a hand to them, acknowledging a profound connection that demonstrates the way the medicine walk has begun to heal his spirit. In the end, he rides home to the old man, filled with hope and with love for the man who has truly acted as a father “all these years.”
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