(Published by McClelland and Stewart.)
Review by Shari Narine
Set with the backdrop of the BC wilderness, author Richard Wagamese intricately weaves the hardship of the physical journey with the emotional journey as estranged father and son travel a rocky ascending path to the beginning of understanding and forgiveness.
Franklin Starlight has grown up knowing little about his father Eldon and nothing about his mother. Frank’s caregiver, or the old man, has provided “the kid” with everything he needs, from a grounding in First Nation’s culture that the old man is not part of to an understanding of the value of hard work. The old man’s need to care for the kid becomes clearer as the story unfolds.
Eldon Starlight is a man haunted by his decisions and the love he lost. When Eldon asks Frank to take him on his final journey so he can be laid to rest in the traditional Ojibway manner, Frank grudgingly complies out of duty and not love.
What transpires is an awakening for both the 16-year-old and his dying father. After years of bottling up his feelings and experiences, Eldon finally lives up to his name. Starlight, he was told by his boyhood friend Jimmy, is the name “given to them that get teachin’s from Star People” and these people are meant to be teachers and storytellers. But up until this point, Eldon has only been able to deal with the harsh secrets he holds through alcohol and it is dying through “the drink” that has spurred this final journey.
Eldon tells Frank the secret he has kept about Jimmy, both of them having served in the Korean War, and he also tells the story of Frank’s mother. These incidences combine to lead Eldon to delivering a newly born baby into the arms and home of the old man. It is the old man who names the baby Franklin, after Benjamin Franklin, who “was trying to catch lightning. Said he knew the world would change if he caught it. Took courage … to want something for others like that.”
In the end, Frank is left with a feeling he cannot understand, but the start of forgiveness for the man, who has always let him down. Frank also comes to put into words what he has always known: that the old man is his father.
The pieces slot together to deliver the larger story of what has brought Eldon to the point of dying from the drink and in so doing, Wagamese is careful to relate the tale of a man, who initially the reader judges as just another drunk and deadbeat dad, but for whom the reader comes to feel compassion and empathy.
Wagamese raises questions about how we move throughout life. Is it what we prove each day, as the old man says, or is whether we choose to run away or run to, as Eldon says. Or is what Frank has learned – that loss can be dealt with in different ways and both define how life is lived.
Wagemese’s tale of love and loss and moving into forgiveness is strengthened by the depth of his characters. It is a harsh life that Eldon lives, and a hard-working life that the kid and the old man lead and Wagemese’s choice of language, the beauty of his words convey their reality.