Thomas King, Medicine River

I was disappointed that Thomas King was defeated as the NDP candidate for Guelph in the recent federal election, because I'm unable to shake the idea that it's nice when good people get into politics, and I really do think of Thomas King as good people. On the other hand, he gets to keep doing all the great things he's been doing so well without having a federal seat in Parliament. I had lots of nice things to say about his book The Truth About Stories, and while I don't fully get what he's doing with the Dead Dog Cafe, people seem to dig that well enough that I'm pleased to see it continue. At least it's not the (*spits*) bloody Air Farce, right? Ugh.

Plus it can't be that pleasant to be a backbencher for a minority party, though maybe NDPers are OK with it since they've never even been the Official Opposition and hence are a seriously long shot to run the country. I voted NDP in my riding, which is my usual but occasionally forsaken choice, but as I commented over at Transmontanus (I think, though I can't find it now), I wasn't happy with any of my selections this year.

Anyway, in all the chaos of the conference I'm trying to organize, I took the time for some pleasure reading: Thomas King's Medicine River, which was rumoured to be funny and represents another title in my ongoing project to read more First Nations texts.

And yep, it was funny. I liked it a lot, though in a low-key sort of way. Mind you, I'm fairly sure it's not going to stick with me, or have much effect on my reading patterns, but I can see the reasons for Medicine River's success, and I'm glad to see that there was some taste involved in this book's success. The characters are really nicely drawn, and the dialogue feels very natural: the voluble Harlen Bigbear, the reluctant Will (reluctant in so many ways, in fact), the charmingly no-nonsense Louise, and the rest. It's just a well put-together novel.

After reading Medicine River, I can confidently say that I'll never go back to W.P. Kinsella's Hobbema books - Shoeless Joe and The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, sure, but not the Hobbema books. I haven't spent time in southern Alberta, or indeed on a reserve, but by the time I was a quarter of the way through this book, this southern Alberta town on the edge of a reserve felt like a place I already knew. My long-standing discomfort with Kinsella's portrayal of the same area was confirmed, purely on the basis of literary merit - I'm no closer to knowing whose portrait is more "true," but King's is much more effectively written, and that counts for a lot.

Escapist reading for me, basically, and it'd be good escapist reading for you.


Anonymous said…
Just came across your reference to King running for the NDP, and hope you don't mind a political comment. Good people have to find a way to operate in politics which stays true to them. I think it is possible, but difficult. King missed, in my opinion. I found it sad when King used his wonderful story style to slam Harper and Dion. It didn't do justice to his talents.

Anyway, I think it was Guelph's environmental concern that did him in. The Greens came in third (well ahead of King) because King attacking carbon taxes didn't go over. The people who went for that, voted Conservative, not NDP. I also wonder if that is what King really thought or if it was something he had to do. Again good people have to find their own way, and perhaps it would have been better for him to simply be silent on carbon taxes, if he had to fit into the NDP platform.

King's writing is wonderful, but I didn't find his run at politics so wonderful.
richard said…
I'll read any comment, anonymous - I only delete the ones that sound like spammers.

As I said elsewhere in this campaign, I had nowhere to park my vote this time. No one running for office wanted to support the carbon tax as well as to remain in Afghanistan. In the end I voted NDP because I thought the local candidate (Denise Savoie) was superior to either of the other major candidates, and in this riding the Green was way behind. Plus the Greens, god help 'em, ran some oddball candidates this time around.

I'm not sure what King really thought of the carbon tax. My own allegiance to the NDP is a fairly old-school thing (wavering due to current policy), and his support might be based in history as well.
John Mutford said…
Of King, I'd only read Green Grass, Running Water and have listened to the Dead Dog Cafe. I'm still on the fence as far as his writing goes. It certainly seems unique, but I wonder at what cost.
richard said…
I'm not sure what you mean by "at what cost," John. Are you suggesting that if King's writing was less unique, it'd be somehow better?

Personally I'm into King for the voice and feel. Medicine River felt similar for that reason to The Truth About Stories, even though the narrative position was different. (I never thought King was writing about himself in Medicine River, I mean.)

But the Dead Dog Cafe doesn't do much for me. At times it's dangerously like one of the skits on 22 Minutes that goes on for a cringing minute too long: though it has never yet induced for me the sort of bowel-loosening cringe that I suffer whenever Air Farce briefly appears on my screen.
Heather said…
I finished this book last month and am glad I came across your comments.

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