Thomas King's Medicine River as Associational Literature

By Kristina S. Ten
2011, Vol. 3 No. 02 | pg. 1/1

Thomas King's Medicine RiverBased on his own definition of the term in “Godzilla vs. Post-Colonial,” Thomas King has created a piece of associational literature in his 1989 novel Medicine River. He has done so not only through his focus on daily, seemingly mundane human interactions, but also by alternately focusing on several members of the community past the obvious main characters of Will and, perhaps, Harlen and Louise. King’s choice of calm revelation and believability in his characters’ lives and relationships takes precedence over any sort of climax-based plotline, even and especially within the final lines of the closing chapter. Throughout the novel and its developments, readers from all backgrounds – Native and non-Native – are able to relate to the characters’ personalities and experiences and, ultimately, to associate the human condition with all humans, regardless of color and creed.

In his essay, King states that one defining trait of associational literature is its “concentrat[ion]...on the daily activities and intricacies of Native life.” One memorable example lies in Chapter Thirteen, where Bertha Morley decides to join a dating service. Though it later becomes evident that Bertha has had troubling and even abusive relationships in the past, these woes are not given great weight on the chapter, which instead focuses on the simple act and the interactions that surround it. The dialogue in particular lends itself to a sense of the “day in the life” narrative, most notably when Bertha explains to Will why she wrote “NYOB” on her application form: “They got a picture. They can see what I look like. The rest of that stuff is just nosy” (178).

King’s straying from overdramatizing a scene that, at its core, has so much to do with the romantic aspects of life, allows all readers to relate to the character of Bertha, down on her luck but not desperate – and damaged, perhaps, but not broken or in need of any rescue outside of what she is determined to do for herself. Her criteria for a match reflects her standards, which differ so greatly from the notion of the “prince on a white horse” mentality present in much traditional western literature: “Whites are okay. Should have his own job and not be married. I’d like someone tall so I can wear heels when we go out, but short is okay, too” (178). This chapter also contains a great deal of humor that is present throughout the novel, here in Harlen’s insistence on mistakenly calling the dating service “that escort service” (185).

One could argue that no topic is more mundane than that of taxes, and the small details of tax season are precisely what warrant a portion of a chapter in Medicine River. In this focus on the everyday, humor lies, in small part, in the relatable honesty of Will admitting that “neither [he nor Harlen] could be trusted with the mysteries of simple addition” (25). This chapter indicates, according to the saying, one inevitability of life (taxes), while the other (death) exists as a constant tension in the novel but, as a theme, never given direct precedence over daily interactions.

In addition to a carrying a constant thread of humor, these scenes of seemingly common, unremarkable events do well to dispel notions of Native Americans peoples as existing only in the very traditional sense, in wigwams and teepees, wearing headdresses and animal hides. It is often difficult for non-Native readers to disregard the stereotypes and associations they have learned from classroom textbooks and blockbuster movies, and to realize that cultures change and evolve over time and that Native American cultures are no exception. It is important, then, for writers of associational literature, Thomas King included, to bring up images of his characters participating in not only day-to-day activities, but especially in such activities particular to the modern day – activities non-Natives are, perhaps, very familiar with, therefore allowing them to see themselves in King’s characters. For instance, though the concept of dating services lies in ancient traditions of matchmaking the term “dating service” itself is decidedly modern. Furthermore, Will’s (and perhaps more accurately Harlen’s) avid participation in basketball brings their day-to-day lives down to a very relatable level. There are many things non-Native readers cannot understand about Blackfoot histories and traditions, but just about everyone has seen a game of basketball.

The everyday interactions King focuses on include, of course, a great number of characters in the fictional community outside of the main character of Will. According to King’s essay, this attention on the group over the individual denotes associational literature in its creation of “a fiction that devalues heroes and villains in favor of the members of a community.” Furthermore, this illustrates that a tangential focus on, for example, the aforementioned Bertha Morley, is not so divergent after all: Community is such an important part of the characters’ lives that, through this significance, Bertha is an extension of Will’s family and thus an important part of his story. Other chapters focus on Louise and South Wing, Susan and her family, Harlen and his brother, January Pretty Weasel, Martha Oldcrow, and various couples who have planned to wed and thus instantly captured Harlen’s interest.

Aside from promoting the idea of the group mentality, the “whole” over any of the “parts,” the focus of a particular character or group of characters within each chapter allows for a complete understanding of the atmosphere on and around the reservation, as well as how each member contributes to the community. Furthermore, a sense of fairness is established in Will as a narrator, who is able to see people as they are, not as overdramatized archetypes of “heroes” or “villains.” For example, Will establishes immediately that he is Harlen Bigbear’s friend and that “being Harlen’s friend was hard” (11). Later, though, Harlen becomes one of those characters every reader is familiar with, one who could be labeled a hero for his largely good intentions or labeled a villain for some of his misunderstandings or small manipulations – when, truly, he is merely human, just like the rest of us.

By focusing on day-to-day interactions and believable characters, King is able to avoid overdramatizing in his novel, thus meeting further criteria for a piece of associational literature, which favors a “flat narrative” and “ignores the ubiquitous climaxes and resolutions that are so valued in non-Native literature.” There are many issues in Medicine River that lie just below the surface and, if brought to light, could make the novel an entirely different piece of storytelling with a darker tone and more blatant themes. For instance, though Will seems haunting, even in his forties, by his father’s absence from his childhood, this issue is given only a few paragraphs’ focus in certain chapters, through Will’s imaginative mental portraits and white lies regarding his father’s profession/s. Also, though Will’s mother’s funeral is his initial reason for returning to Medicine River from his new residence in Toronto, the issue of her death is not brought up until page 240 and, even then, lightly, matter-of-factly: “I was in Toronto when my mother died.”

Will’s relationships too have great potential to become heavy-handed and overly dramatic, but King writes them so they instead become very real, a string of daily troubles, inconveniences, things unsaid and general awkwardness. Even in Will’s breakup with Susan, the situation is uncomfortable but never depicted as catastrophic. Will’s relationship with Louise is all the more believable in its “unorthodox” nature. This also may dismantle readers’ notions of Native American lifestyles they may have read about or seen before, but Will and Louise exist outside of traditional marriage vows and even the idea of living together that Harlen was so set on.

As for Harlen, his unsteady relationship with his brother – “They just don’t get along very well, I guess. You know, brothers.” – is ever-present but largely underplayed in the text, even in the one chapter that focuses on their bridge-climbing adventure (151). Aside from showing a new dimension to Harlen past what Will’s narration has given readers, this downplay of drama makes each character easier to relate to. The skirting of dramatic issues does not, of course, indicate that the characters have not lived through painful experiences, but that they instead choose to live in the present. Medicine River, then, as a piece of associational literature, illustrates that Native American peoples, here the Blackfoot in particular, do exist in the present and are not so separate from non-Native readers as western literature or may have led us to believe.


King, Thomas. Medicine River. Markham, Ont. Canada: Viking, 1990. Print.

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