M. was willing to consider such possibilities. Her life had been a mess, after all. But the antidepressant medications often prescribed for O.C.D. made no difference. And she didn’t actually feel a compulsion to pull out her hair. She simply felt itchy, on the area of her scalp that was left numb from the shingles. Although she could sometimes distract herself from it—by watching television or talking with a friend—the itch did not fluctuate with her mood or level of stress. The only thing that came close to offering relief was to scratch.
Certainly there are those who are disadvantaged and cannot stay out of jail, but his Indian
characters are capable and human -- not alienated Natives wrapped up in victimist history.
Part of the appeal of Medicine River comes from its interweaving into the main action of many
humorous, touching, maddening, and sad stories of the Native community of Medicine River --
especially the stories that Will's mother told and did not tell her children.
In this first novel by Canadian/Native American King, a Native leaves Toronto to return to the town of his origins in Alberta--where he lives through a well-rendered and amusing--though predictable--series of fights, feuds, and schemes. When Will returns to Medicine River for his mother's funeral, Harlan Bigbear wants him to stay on as Medicine River's only Native photographer--but Will likes Toronto and even has a sort of girlfriend there, Susan. Still, Harlan is a force that cannot be long resisted. He is the center of the book ("". . .like a prairie wind. You never knew when he was coming or when he was going to leave""), has a great many interests, and knows everyone in Medicine River. Once King has flashbacked at length to stories of childhood and adolescence, the story--narrated by Will in a tone of understated perplexity--rotates between accounts of Harlan's exploits, portraits of small-town Native types, and Will's growing involvement with Louise, whom Harlan has decided he should marry. The flashbacks contain the usual abuse, depression, and sadness of the reservation, leavened by the exploits of an all-Native basketball team (""Basketball is a great way to forget your problems""); by the stories of Joe Bigbear, Harlan's brother (""so there we were, ten gorgeous women just waiting for us""); and by Bertha Morley's attempts to find a partner through the Center for the Development of Human Potential, a dating service. She finally gets together with Harlan, while even Martha Oldcrow, a ""marriage doctor,"" can't solve Will's dilemma: He passes on Louise but discovers Susan has passed on him. No matter. After a canoe trip and some high jinks, all ends on an upbeat note. King's gentle narrative sags in places, but overall he creates a strong sense of place and a loopy, touching cast of characters--a Canadian/Native American version of the Mayberry of Andy Griffith and Don Knotts.
His first published story, "Joe
the Painter and the Deer Island Massacre," has been reprinted three times; Margaret Atwood calls it
and "One Good Story, That One" perfect, commenting on his exquisite timing, subversive humor, and
inventive narrative twists.
King's first novel, Medicine River (1990), is set in the fictional Alberta town of Medicine River, next to
the Blackfoot reservation.
When Will goes back to Medicine River for the funeral of his Blackfoot mother,
he assumes that no one will remember or care about him.
In Medicine River he falls into the clutches of Harlan Bigbear, a compassionate trickster who knows
what is best for everyone.
Though scratching can provide momentary relief, it often makes the itching worse. Dermatologists call this the itch-scratch cycle. Scientists believe that itch, and the accompanying scratch reflex, evolved in order to protect us from insects and clinging plant toxins—from such dangers as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue, transmitted by mosquitoes; from tularemia, river blindness, and sleeping sickness, transmitted by flies; from typhus-bearing lice, plague-bearing fleas, and poisonous spiders. The theory goes a long way toward explaining why itch is so exquisitely tuned. You can spend all day without noticing the feel of your shirt collar on your neck, and yet a single stray thread poking out, or a louse’s fine legs brushing by, can set you scratching furiously.