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Richard Wagamese was a Genius

Richard Wagamese died at 61 in March 2017, less than two months ago, and it bothers me that his writing isn't better known and loved. Once you know it, it's hard (in my experience) not to love. But other than short obligatory mentions in the media, his death, at least in Canada, has garnered little sorrow or interest outside of the writing community itself.

That's unfortunate: it's a missed opportunity, for three reasons.

First, in contrast to what I've learned in the news media and from nonfiction dealing with Canada's residential schools, it was only in reading Wagamese's novel Indian Horse (2012) that I could understand -- intellectually but especially at a gut level -- that sorry chapter in Canadian history.

Second, Wagamese's fiction can help heal historical wounds. His fiction at times relates the effects of Colonialism (as they've played out in Canada) in excruciating detail and from a First Nations viewpoint, but nevertheless his writer's voice has a universality to it, a porousness that absorbs readers of different backgrounds -- including white Canadians -- into the story. That's how it feels, anyway, to this Canadian writer.

But I digress: third, Wagamese was a genius. A true literary genius. Or, at least in reference to his last novel, Medicine Walk (2014), I've not read anything lately that's as close to being a masterpiece.

Why a masterpiece? The novel is about a young Ojibway man and his father, and it partly explores their separate experiences of racism (including, in his father's case, reverse racism) and how they're affected by it. But there's another aspect of the book that concerns their family itself and the antagonism within it. I get chills up my spine on contemplating the main characters, their human faults and achingly beautiful acts. I can't think of another contemporary novel -- especially a "quiet" one like this -- that's hit me so hard.

Medicine Walk shines in other ways. For example, the protagonist and third person narrator, 16-year-old but mature-before-his-time Franklin Starlight, refers to himself as "the kid" or "he," never as Frank or Franklin. Similarly, his adoptive white father is always called "the old man," not "his father" or "his dad." This narrative voice embodies Franklin's yearning for identity and family.

Richard Wagamese.
Photo: www.viu.ca.
Also, Wagamese's descriptions of the mountainous wilderness setting -- and of how to survive in it -- range from broad brushstrokes to detailed names, colours, textures, and smells of the forest's soil, trees, and animals. The specificity is engrossing. It transported me to, enveloped me in, that "other place" that's such an enjoyable part (or should  be) of reading fiction.

Finally, the theme, dramatically illustrated through the main characters' struggles, is timely in this angry age: forgiveness is difficult, but it can heal (to a degree, anyway) the most broken of relationships. We need more stories like this. And even if we don't seem to know it, we needed, and still need, Richard Wagamese.

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