Medicine Walk Themes
The main themes in Medicine Walk are the importance of stories, connections to nature, and loss.
- The importance of stories: By telling his stories to Franklin, Eldon is able to both unburden himself and impart a vital sense of self-knowledge to his son.
- Connections to nature: Thanks to his upbringing by Bunky, Franklin is at home in nature, which offers him solace, sustenance, and connection to his heritage.
- Loss: Both Eldon and Bunky suffer painful losses in their lives, but while Eldon reacts by retreating into drink, Eldon honors his loss by raising Franklin.
The Importance of Stories
In the novel’s main plot line, Franklin is on a journey to take his father to the place where he will die and be buried. Yet interspersed with this plot are the stories of Eldon’s life and of his efforts to be a father. As he faces death, Eldon realizes that he is disconnected from the world and, most importantly, from his son. By asking Franklin to take him on this journey, Eldon is afforded the time he needs to give his son a greater sense of self-knowledge. Through his stories, Eldon shares hidden and painful parts of himself to help his son better understand his absence. These stories also ground Franklin in the truth about his relationship with the old man and afford him the chance to know something about his own mother.
During his childhood, Franklin has no stories to connect him to the larger world. While his father periodically summons him, Eldon is typically drunk and doesn’t share anything personal with his son. Franklin longs to know who his mother is, searching the faces of women he passes, wondering if each one could be his mother. Although the old man knows the identity of Franklin’s mother, he believes the story isn’t his to tell. Instead, he tells Franklin that “certain things when they’re true gotta come from them that knows them as true.” Finally, Franklin’s father does share stories of Franklin’s mother, Angie. Angie loved sharing personal stories herself, often urging Eldon to divulge more of his own history; she swore that he could trust her with anything. Yet even with Angie, Eldon locked his painful past away.
In his final days, Eldon recalls that his own mother was a gifted storyteller. Her voice captivated him as a child, and he fell into the stories each evening. On their first evening together, Bunky told Eldon that Angie seemed to pull stories right out of the air; her storytelling brought tears to Eldon’s eyes.
Words and stories provide connections between and among people, bonding them through shared experiences and emotions. As Becka points out, “It’s all we are in the end. Our stories.” Eldon passes all he is to Franklin in his final days, hoping that the knowledge of his father’s shortcomings, pain, and losses will fill up the “holes life can sometimes [allow people to] fall into.”
Connections to Nature
Franklin and the old man live a simple yet peaceful life together. From a young age, the old man teaches Franklin to learn from the land, allowing him to go off on overnight hunting trips by the time Franklin is nine years old. Their lives on the farm are predictable and comfortable, which stands in contrast to Franklin’s experiences in town. Franklin drops out of school as soon as it is legal because he has never found the lessons in school meaningful; additionally, the other young people in town have never trusted Franklin due to their racism. When Franklin is summoned to visit his father in town, it always ends in disaster. Eldon spends his time working just enough to fund the next drinking binge, and even when Franklin shows up, Eldon can’t be bothered to stay sober long enough to spend any real time with him.
Along their journey to the spot where Eldon has chosen to die, nature comforts Franklin as he learns the painful truth about his father. When Eldon tells him about Angie’s death, Franklin walks into the woods, letting nature surround him and console him until he can face his father again. Franklin trusts nature more fully than...
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he trusts any human besides the old man; he doesn’t even pack food for their trip, confident that the land will provide all that they need, just as the old man has taught him. After Eldon dies, Franklin uses moss and boughs to line his grave, thereby connecting Eldon to nature in his final resting place.
When Franklin returns home, he falls into a familiar rhythm on the farm with the old man, taking care of their horses and replacing boards for the horses’ stalls. As they work seamlessly outdoors together, Franklin realizes how much of who he is comes from the old man. When Franklin tells him that he isn’t sure how to feel now that his father has died, the old man points him back to nature, telling him, “Don’t know as I … got an answer but it always felt better bein’ out there.” Franklin rides out into the fading daylight, seeing images which seem to be a long line of his ancestors, shouting to him with “hope and good humour” as they ride through the woods. Nature connects Franklin more deeply to his heritage, comforts him through deep losses, and reflects the loving guidance the old man has provided him since he was an infant in need of a home.
Franklin’s two father figures shoulder heavy losses throughout their lives. Eldon loses his father in the war, and his mother finds herself in an abusive relationship shortly thereafter. After he and Jimmy try to intervene, she tells Eldon that he needs to leave, and he never sees her again. In the war, Eldon ends the life of his longtime best friend, partly because of Jimmy’s suffering and partly because he is scared that his friend’s anguished screams will reveal his own location. When Eldon meets Angie, he is given a reprieve from his life of loss; yet in bringing their child into the world, Angie dies. Eldon copes with his cumulative losses by turning to alcohol, relentlessly drowning his suffering until his addiction is too much for his body. He refuses to talk about his pain or to connect with the child who bridges his past and his possible future, leaving Franklin with the old man because the baby reminds him so much of Angie. Eldon isolates himself with his losses, dying a little at a time and holding his pain close.
Bunky also suffers a great loss. In Angie, he had seen the promise of a future. Bunky tells Eldon that Angie made him a better man. When Angie decides to leave him, Bunky puts Angie’s needs first, making sure that she is taken care of as much as possible, even though his financial support makes it easier for her to leave with Eldon. When Eldon returns with Angie’s baby, Bunky doesn’t want to care for an infant, yet he ultimately chooses to do so because it honors the love he had for Angie. While Eldon flees from his pain and loss, Bunky shoulders the burden and tries to create something beautiful out of his suffering—a good life for Angie’s son.
Franklin has endured the loss of his mother, the loss of ever really knowing his biological family, and the loss of his father. Because he has been raised by Bunky, he navigates his losses in much the same way Bunky does. He disappears into nature, connects with the old man, and shares stories of his pain. This gives readers hope that he will grow to be the man his biological father never was, as he has been given the strength to endure and find peace by the man he recognizes as his true father.