Richard Wagamese – R.I.P. by Nancy Early
After his sudden death earlier this year on March 10, at age 61, the Canadian media launched memorials honouring the award-winning Ojibway author Richard Wagamese. Personally I never tire of reading how he fondly credits libraries and one particular St. Catharines Public librarian for dramatically changing his life.
His childhood, scarred by abuse and abandonment, never improved with the ‘foster family’ solution. At 16, alternating between life on the streets and in jail, he also struggled as an alcoholic and substance abuser. Then he walked into the St Catharines Public Library. The library kept him dry and warm, and the librarian’s occasional offerings of food sustained him. But he claimed, it was her kindness, patience and introduction to books and classic music that nourished his soul.
Fast forward to his future where homeless teen with a Grade 9 education turns journalist, then author of 14 books. His stories tackled many of the tough issues – homelessness, domestic and substance abuse, and the legacy of residential schools. He writes with an undeniable authenticity. If I had to pick one Richard Wagamese favorite, well, I couldn’t. Instead I give you my top three, no make that four.
Ragged Company follows the lives of four homeless people who meet by chance in a city movie theatre. They go in to seek shelter from a harsh winter storm. What they find is life-changing. The friendships and the cinema transform their lives. When the group stumble upon a discarded cigarette package with a few smokes, three $20 bills and an unclaimed lottery ticket, the sizeable winnings should make all their problems go away. But as we so often learn – money is seldom the answer.
Indian Horse – Saul Indian Horse thinks he can escape the horrors of residential school life in Northern Ontario by excelling at the sport of hockey. His persistence pays off, and his self-taught talent takes him up through the Northern Ontario native league to the pros. Yet he painfully realizes the past can’t always be stick-handled away. Indian Horse was a national bestseller and a Canada Reads nominated title in 2013. It is currently in film production.
Medicine Walk – Franklin Starlight has a troubling, distant and disappointing relationship with his dying, alcoholic father. Yet, when he’s called to take him into the BC Interior so he can be buried in the Ojibway tradition – the journey is enlightening, and most importantly healing for father and son.
Embers – One Ojibway’s Meditations. This book, along with the above mentioned titles are available to borrow from CPL, and I will undoubtedly re-read these books again. But Embers – I straight out bought. Originally these were the author’s Facebook musings and life lessons, many of which were hard fought and won. Encouraged by his publisher, Richard Wagamese compiled his personal wisdoms into this small, albeit beautiful book. It’s perfect for daily morning meditations or just pick a random page for a spur of the moment inspiration.
By the way, Richard never did meet the helpful librarian again. Although she sent a card after he was published, relating how proud she was of him. Eventually he would return to St Catharines to attend her funeral. He spoke of her often in media interviews and book talks across the country. He said he never forgot her, or her kindness.
“Kind gestures that change lives…patience and respect for those less fortunate…forgiveness…healing…are the themes of Richard Wagamese’s life and novels, and I never tire of hearing those stories either.