A powerful and unflinching tale of healing and forgiveness. This novel had special interest for this reader for a couple of reasons. For one thing, it is set in British Columbia, where the author eventually made his home near Kamloops, and is filled with a powerful and immediate intimacy with the backcountry of the interior of B.C. For another, the story deals with the sometimes fraught terrain of the relationship between father and son. I was slow to realize that this was a deep theme of my 1990s TV series, The Odyssey. In a wider sense, it also looks at the world of maleness more generally. Where other writers tiptoe around this, Wagamese rolls up his sleeves and gets under the hood.
The prose is lean, poetic, and self-assured. The hero is a 16-year-old boy, Franklin Starlight, a half-breed Indian (“breed,” as these characters call themselves) who lives and works on the farmstead of a white character identified only as “the old man.” It’s a good life: Franklin has become a skilled farmhand and woodsman, and can’t imagine anything better than living and working in this country. But there are unhealed wounds lying beneath the idyllic surface of life: Franklin’s father, Eldon, a feckless alcoholic, makes the occasional appearance in his life, creating feelings of shame and bitter disappointment in the boy. Of his mother he knows nothing; no word has ever been said about her, except that it is Eldon’s place to tell Franklin about the circumstances of his birth and early life—which he has not done.
Now liver disease has caught up with Eldon, and he has not much time left. And Franklin finds himself making a final trek with his father into the bush so that Eldon can die in a special place there. On that journey, the issues between them come to light, along with the history that has led to their situation. It’s a painful journey, but a necessary one.
The author, Richard Wagamese, who, sadly, died in 2017 at age 61, knew whereof he wrote, for he was an aboriginal who grew up with the full measure of tragedy borne by so many Indians in Canada, including the systematic abuses of the residential school system. He became an addict, a street kid, and a jailbird. Eventually he became a journalist and writer, and moved from his native Ontario to B.C. When he writes about pain and about emotional scarring, he writes what he knows, and it comes through as deeply authentic.
There are many “5-star” aspects to this novel, but in the end I have rated it with 4 stars. One issue with a tale of this kind is that it deals quite a lot in flashbacks, and these are difficult to handle, since they slow down a story. Another slight issue for me was that the dialogue, although authentic and gutsy, is too similar between all the characters: they all speak the same way. It would have been good to distinguish between the characters in this respect. In other ways the characters are well drawn and distinct, but I think the author could have done more here.
But I admired many things about this book. One was that the characters do not dwell on the social causes of their suffering. They don’t spend time blaming society or white people, or even full-blood Indians who also look down on “breeds”; they play the cards that have been dealt to them, and take personal responsibility for their lives, no matter how difficult or mismanaged these might be. They have drunk the cup of suffering to the bottom, but they are soldiering on. There is courage here, and benevolence, and wisdom, along with the squalor and vice of exploded lives.
Franklin Starlight is on a hero’s journey in the backwoods of B.C., fraught with perils and with pain. It’s a strong and searching tale.