My first job was at Chapters, which was the family business as I grew up. I am a book snob. I have no problem admitting that. While the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” has generally come to mean “don’t judge a person by their looks,” I absolutely judge actual books by their covers. I mean, you can take one look at a romance novel and know everything you need to know.
I judge self-published books especially harshly, having grown up in an era where self-publishing meant that the book usually lacked proper editing and definitely lacked a proper marketing team behind it. You can spot a self-published book with a trained eye – they’re usually stiffer, as they’re printed on heavier white paper as opposed to the thin, pulp-like newsprint that is commonly used by publishing houses.
But we’re in a different age of publishing now, where self-publishing is a viable and preferred option for many authors. Amazon makes it very easy for authors to get their works to the masses, and social media does the rest.
Happily, as a self-published book, Delby Powless’ Medicine Game exceeded every expectation I had.
Powless, a former member of the Buffalo Bandits, Six Nations Chiefs and Iroquois Nationals, writes extremely well for a first-time author. He’s an important new voice in the Canadian literary scene, and his writing evokes some of the greats.
Medicine Game is the story of Tommy Henry, who struggles with his life on the fictional Sparrow Lake reservation. His young life is impacted by more tragedy than anyone should ever experience, and how he deals with those various tragedies make up the plot of the book. It’s an examination of how abuse and tragedy shape our lives as we grow, and how we can pass down that abuse and tragedy to future generations – but also how we can heal ourselves through lacrosse.
Set in the 1990s and early 2000s, Tommy grows from tot to teen with the help of his supportive family, adoring younger brother, level-headed coach and extended network of friends and teammates. Perhaps most importantly, he finds a kindred spirit in Hazel Blackwater, a local elder who recounts her abuse at the hands of the residential school system.
Tommy experiences the same feelings of rage that his father experienced when he was growing up, and they work on this together throughout the book. Without spoiling the ending, things really come full circle in the last few pages, with a twist that completely caught me off guard.
Much of the latter part of the story revolves around Tommy’s high school team’s pursuit of the state championship and how lacrosse becomes the vessel into which Tommy fuels his emotions. Lacrosse games are narrated in this book by play-by-play man Hank Thomas and colour commentator Robbie Redbird, and reading their words makes you feel like you’re at the game yourself, shivering in the stands with a cup of hot chocolate. In this current pandemic, it was Medicine Game’s descriptive game passages that made me miss lacrosse like nothing else has.
This book is not for the sensitive. From the opening pages, the reader is faced with sexual abuse, cancer, violence and attempted suicide. It continues with domestic violence, police brutality, substance abuse and death. It is very dark indeed, but the book, like life, is a journey.
Each chapter is short and many are self-contained, reading like short stories. At times it’s like a Stuart McLean piece of Canadiana, if the late Stuart McLean had written Indigenous stories.
Some of the best characters are Tommy’s friends, who are with him throughout his life. Those scenes, especially the ones that include red-headed Weasel, make you long for your childhood, when sports were all that mattered and you felt invincible. The comradery between such close teammates comes off as if Roy MacGregor himself had penned the characters.
The only thing the story lacks is a real look inside Tommy’s head at his lowest points. We don’t get to see his thought process or how he comes to decide to attempt suicide early on in the book. We have to extrapolate his reasons from his childhood tragedies, but we don’t ever see him working through it. Even in his meetings with Hazel Blackwater, the reader is told that talking helps, but Powless chooses not to have Tommy speak his truth out loud.
In the end, that small criticism doesn’t detract from the story itself. You’ll be sucked into Tommy’s world from the opening pages and rooting for him to find his way as he grows, in spite of the tragedy that always seems to surround him. Medicine Game is an utterly readable and familiar journey.
The book is available at Amazon for $15.99, or if you’re not a book purist like me, you can get the Kindle edition for $4.99. With prime shipping, there is plenty of time for this gem to appear under your Christmas tree.
TOMORROW: Q&A with the author!