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.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

“The Man Who Would Be King” (1888)[1] is one of Rudyard Kipling’s most well known and highly acclaimed short stories. Michael Caine, Sean Connery, and Christopher Plummer starred in John Huston’s classic film adaptation (1975), which provided a testament to the story’s enduring popularity (Beckerman... MORE»
Although he finished a degree in law at Charles University during the beginning of World War II, Hrabal was never allowed to practice. Later, as the Communists took power, Hrabal’s books were not allowed to be published, and so they remained underground in the literature world until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989. This is the setting of Hrabal’s world, and therefore it is... MORE»
In Shakespeare’s King Lear, Poor Tom—a figure of madness, poverty, and linguistic play—acts as the personification of the semi-apocalyptic state into which the social world of the play descends. Edgar first appears fully as Poor Tom in Act 3, in the midst of the storm, when Lear’s madness becomes fully displayed. That we encounter Poor Tom in the setting... MORE»
Since its emergence in the 19th century, fantasy fiction has proliferated throughout the world, from the global craze of Lord of the Rings (1954) to Harry Potter (1997). As a sub-genre of fantasy... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow SP

Latest in Literature

2019, Vol. 11 No. 04
This paper explores the conflict between hegemonic and new masculinity in Phil Klay’s Redeployment, illustrating the changing conception of gender roles and masculinity in storytelling about war. This paper juxtaposes traditional conceptions... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 02
The corpus of Older Scots literature is hyper-attentive to the themes and issues surrounding nationhood and sovereignty. Authors of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries often espoused and exploited the national pride of the Scottish people, producing... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
Until the outbreak of civil war, the United States would continually try and fail to subdue the existential threat of slavery, with each attempt exacerbating the sectional tensions between slave and free states. In 1830, Massachusetts Senator Daniel... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov is a masterpiece of literature that seems to transform into a remarkably personal experience for anyone who approaches the text. The book reads in many ways like a game full of mysteries and innuendos and has in its... Read Article »
2019, Vol. 11 No. 01
The staged plays of the early Jacobean period are valuable textual products for the literary critic, the cultural researcher and the historian alike. These plays are significant containers of knowledge about the mutually reinforcing social and political... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 10
Innocent lamb, savage tiger, free-flying eagle – time after time animals interrupt poetry as the ideal, the muse, the hero, or the grotesque operating alongside humanity. In tracking animal imagery throughout contemporary Irish poetry, we... Read Article »
2018, Vol. 10 No. 03
In his poem ‘Punishment’ from the poetry collection North (1975), Seamus Heaney picks up the voice of a witness who is suspended between the possibilities of love, silence, voyeurism, outrage and above all, the understanding of the process... Read Article »

What are you looking for?


The Career Value of the Humanities & Liberal Arts
How to Read for Grad School
7 Big Differences Between College and Graduate School