Medicine RiverThe Novel
Medicine River chronicles the lives of a group of contemporary Native Americans in Western Canada. The
novel is divided into eighteen short chapters. The story is recounted by the protagonist, Will Sampson, in an
amiable, conversational fashion, with frequent flashbacks to earlier portions of his life.
The novel begins with an encounter between Will and Harlen Bigbear. Harlen is an entrepreneur who has set
Will up in his own photography business. Harlen is Will’s best friend, but there is something unpredictable
about him. Harlen is much more dynamic than the stolid Will, and he lives life at a faster and more stressful
pace. Beneath Will’s placid exterior, though, all sorts of psychological depths simmer. These are hinted at as
Will remembers contemplating letters written long ago by his long-vanished father to his mother, Rose. Rose
catches Will reading the letters and reprimands him. Will realizes that his life will remain unsettled until he
comes to terms with the enigma of his father.
Harlen speaks to Will again soon after. This time, Harlen attempts to recruit Will to play on a local basketball
team, the Medicine River Friendship Centre Warriors. The team’s star player, Clyde Whiteman, cannot play
at the moment, and Harlen urges Will to substitute for him. Will is skeptical, doubting his own ability. His
brother James, a gifted artist, seems to have all the talent in the family, whereas Will sees himself as merely
an ordinary person who somehow muddles through life. Notwithstanding his fears, Will agrees to join the
team. At forty, he is not exactly in championship-quality shape. Yet with the help of some coaxing from
Harlen, he fits well onto the team.
Harlen also helps to activate Will’s private life. He points out that Louise Heavyman, who is the tax
accountant for both men, is an attractive woman. None too subtly, Harlen urges Will to court Louise. Will is
almost persuaded when, shockingly, he learns that Louise is pregnant by another man and is about to give
birth. Whereas most men would be dissuaded at this point, Will takes the news in stride. He asks Louise for a
date, not even mentioning her condition.
Soon, Louise calls Will to drive her to the hospital when her labor begins. There seems to be an unspoken
understanding between Will and Louise that, despite the unusual circumstances of their relationship, they are
both comfortable with the situation. The baby is born and is named Wilma, but Will jokingly calls her South
Wing. This sounds like a traditional Indian name, but in fact it is derived from the south wing of the hospital,
where the baby is born.
Jake Pretty Weasel is one of the best players on the basketball team, but it is also known that he beats his wife,
January. When it is learned that Jake has shot himself, some people suspect that January has in fact murdered
her husband, whether in retaliation or in self-defense. Because of Catholic prohibitions against suicide, a
Mormon clergyman officiates at the funeral; the Canadian headquarters of Mormonism, Cardston, is quite
near the fictional Medicine River. It turns out that Jake has in fact shot himself, but that January has forged a
suicide note because she knew that people would suspect her. When January explains this to Will and Harlen,
they are accepting and compassionate. After a while, Will and Harlen forget the tawdry and painful end to
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Jake’s life, and they retain their fond memories of him as friend and teammate.
The basketball team is becoming a more close-knit, cohesive fraternity, but Will’s feelings about his vanished
father are still unresolved. He reveals that, for years, he has lied when asked about his father, saying that he is
an engineer, photographer, or lawyer. These lies are an attempt to evade the embarrassment and hurt that Will
feels at his father’s abandonment of him. As time goes on, Will’s fantasies become more elaborate. Will’s
mother once gave him a photograph of his father, but this sample of reality did not assuage his emotional
As the basketball team tours the western areas of Canada and the United States, Harlen pressures Will to
contact Louise again. Will recalls a former relationship with a Toronto woman, Susan Adamson, who attempts
to draw Will into the urban excitement of contemporary Canadian culture. Will begins a relationship with her.
Yet when he calls her at home, to his shock her daughter answers, revealing that Susan is married. Beneath
Susan’s facade of sophistication are qualities that the novel exposes as hypocritical and immoral.
Will and Harlen drive down to the site of the defeat of General George Armstrong Custer, the most famous
event in Native American history, but it is closed for the night. Their basketball team is improved by the
return of the gifted Clyde Whiteman, but Whiteman soon leaves the team again when he is jailed for stealing a
Will becomes closer to Louise and her daughter, prompting Harlen to comment that Will should marry
Louise. As the two become closer, Will again flashes back to the end of his relationship with Susan Adamson
and further reveals to the reader that his mother died when he was living in Toronto.
David Plume, a member of the militant American Indian Movement (AIM), is arrested after a man who had
taunted him has been shot. Will believes that David committed the crime, but he sympathizes with his
predicament. Louise goes into Edmonton to see Harold, the father of South Wing. Will worries that she will
marry him. Louise, however, returns to Medicine River and Will. The reader gets the impression that the
happiness Will experiences with Louise and her daughter will finally heal the wounds inflicted upon him by
his vanished father.
Will Sampson is a Native American professional photographer. He is forty and unmarried. The disappearance
of his father has left him with unresolved emotional tensions. He is not only the narrator of the book but also
the emotional center of the subtle social milieu of Medicine River. The other characters are defined by their
interaction with Will. They establish an interpersonal atmosphere in the book that establishes a community
whose whole is greater than the sum of its individual parts.
Harlen Bigbear is Will’s best friend. He is energetic and innovative and often motivates Will to do things he
otherwise would not do.
Louise Heavyman is courted by Will. She has a daughter, South Wing. Louise is an imperfect yet sympathetic
character. She communicates largely through subtle, indirect hints, though her emotional language is readily
understood by Will.
Rose Sampson, Will’s mother, knows that Will has been affected by the disappearance of his mysterious and
enigmatic father. She attempts to heal her son’s emotional wounds, but she can never quite succeed during
her life. She has died when Will sets up his photography business in Medicine River, so she is presented
exclusively in flashback.
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Jake Pretty Weasel is an abusive husband who commits suicide. His fate highlights by contrast Will’s warmth
David Plume, a Native American militant, provides a contrast to the softspoken, nuanced character of Will.
He also is a symbol of the lingering discontent felt among contemporary Native Americans.
Susan Adamson, a sophisticated Toronto woman who once was Will’s girlfriend, is an unsympathetic
character who helps the reader to recognize the positive values held by Will and Louise at the end of the book.
She is presented exclusively in flashback.
Themes and Meanings
Medicine River is preoccupied with Native American themes, but this preoccupation is voiced with an almost
spectacular unobtrusiveness. Prominent Native American writers of the late twentieth century have stressed
the need to dispel degrading and condescending stereotypes of contemporary Native Americans. Works such
as Louise Erdrich’s Love Medicine (1984) and James Welch’s The Indian Lawyer (1990) defy conventional
notions of Native Americans as mere hapless, residual victims, lingering on in reservations after the
near-obliteration of their culture by triumphant Europeans. Welch and Erdrich show Native Americans
flourishing and thriving in markedly contemporary contexts, living lives much like the rest of mainstream
Americans, yet these characters are never totally assimilated. They never forget (nor are they allowed to
forget) their distinctive heritage.
This variety of representation is King’s goal as well. King, though, weaves the themes of modernity and
assimilation so deftly into the fabric of the book’s plot that he does not even need to be overt about it. Will,
Harlen, Louise, and the other residents of Medicine River are unmistakably Native American. Yet their
guiding pursuits in life—eating pizza, watching football on television, and playing basketball—are dramatically
antithetical to received expectations of Native American interests. The people of Medicine River participate as
thoroughly in the modern world as do any of their Europe-descended neighbors.
At a party Will attends with his then-girlfriend Susan during his Toronto years, he meets someone who is
surprised that Will is a photographer. This is because the partygoer has been exposed to widely disseminated
canards about Native Americans, who ostensibly fear that photographs will capture their souls. The fact that
Will is a photographer by profession is a striking indicator of how King’s characters are at home with
technology and do not fear or repudiate it. The symbol of the photograph also represents the preservation of
the past through time. This is illustrated when Rose gives Will a photograph of his father in order to stem his
bewilderment about the man who abandoned him.
Although Will lacks the militancy of his friend David Plume, he is sensitive to his own heritage. This is
evidenced by the poignant attempt he and Harlen make to visit the site of Custer’s defeat. That this site is
closed may symbolize the way the characters remain rather distant from their people’s past. More pressing to
Will are dilemmas only accidentally connected to his heritage, such as the enigma of his father or his
relationship with Louise. These questions of love and family occur in the lives of everyone. King’s portrait of
his characters’ concerns is thereby ingratiating and authentic. The combination of the mellow social comedy
of the surface plot and the questions of Native American identity that lie not far below lend the novel a
relaxed and evocative atmosphere. The novel uses humor and understatement in order to treat potentially
tumultuous situations with reserve and warmth.
An interesting facet of Medicine River is its Canadian setting, The characters relate more to American
professional sports (for example, the National Football League) than to such partly Canadian professional
sports as basketball and hockey. In this way, they are a part of a common North American culture, as shown
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in much of their everyday lives. Yet the reader is always reminded of the Canadian setting of the action.
Louise goes to Edmonton to visit her baby’s father. Will met his sophisticated former girlfriend in Toronto.
Canadian writers such as Leon Rooke are mentioned prominently in the novel. Native Americans, however,
live in both the United States and Canada, and lived in the areas now occupied by those nations before either
existed. In addition, Native Americans often have dual loyalties to their own nation or tribe and to the Native
American people as a whole. These competing loyalties are compounded when, as is often the case, ancestry
can be traced from several different tribes and, more often than not, from Europeans as well. (Thomas King,
for example, is partly of Greek and German descent. His Native American heritage comes from the Cherokee
nation, which is not native to Western Canada.) Thus, the people of Medicine River can be said to belong to
no one nation or tribe.
Medicine River was published in Canada in 1989 and released in the United States in 1992. It was King’s first
novel and was enthusiastically received in both countries. King has since published another novel, Green
Grass, Running Water (1993), a more expansive look at many of the same themes and questions that
concerned him in his first work of fiction. King’s second novel delves more fully into the visionary potential
of the Native American past and present than does Medicine River.
King is now counted as one of the leading contemporary Native American writers. He teaches in the
departments of American and Native American Studies at the University of Minnesota. King is a
Canadian-born man teaching in the United States whose work centers on a Native American identity common
to both countries. In this way, King’s life summarizes the contradictions that animate and nourish the lives of