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Research: Canada
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Critic to “Medicine River” and Equus”

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Literature: Critic
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By: Yalda Mahmoudi
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A closer look at “Medicine River” and Equus” books are identity fond?
or Characters are out to lunch?


The novelMedicine River”, by Thomas King is a story about Will, a mixed-blood man of Blackfoot descent and a slightly successful Toronto photographer. He returns to the reserve for his mother’s funeral and is not planning on staying in Medicine River, But his old friend, Harlen Bigbear, had other plans for him. In a unique brand of community planning, Harlen tries to glamorize Medicine River to try to convince Will on the idea of returning to his homeland, as the town’s only Native photographer, and manages to convince him at least give it a try. Will feels alienated from his friends and family, and has a hard time in finding himself within the community, but the ever-engaging Harlen has an answer for everything.

The play Equus” by Peter Shaffer is about an adolescent boy, Alan, who has a passion for horses in both religious and psychological way. He has blinded six horses one night by stabbing them with a stake through their eyes. He is brought then to Martin Dysart, who is a psychiatrist to help him through his problem and also prevents Alan from going to jail. He at first reuses to talk to Dysart and when he does start talking, he speaks in jingles from television commercials. When Dysart working and curing Alan, he realizes that he must exercise the “ferocious” passion from his soul, even though Dysart himself mourns the absence of such happiness in his own life.

Will and Alan both have a lot of experiences in common; both have conflicts organizing in their childhood, which reaches its climax, hit bottom and realize that in order to stand on their feet again, they must take action, in achieving hope and inner piece and being able to grow beyond their childhood conflicts.

James is Will’s younger brother and they differ greatly with each other. Although both brothers share the same background, James is inherently more attached to his native roots than Will. From an early age, James displayed an intuitive link to his culture; this was evident in his incredible talent for drawing animals in their natural environment. This authentic form of Indian art is a root of his encouragement for James to pursue his deal of traveling and learning more about his culture and heritage. James is more sociable and outgoing, which helped him in all his travels. In contrast, Will is more interested in sports, such as basketball, and his career as a photographer is symbolic of his isolation and dislocation from his culture. Contrary to James native drawings, Will’s photographs represent a snapshot in time. They recorded history in an objective way. This shows Will’s neutral tone towards his native identity. There seems to be a transformation however, when Will returns to Medicine River to open his own business after losing his job and girlfriend in Toronto. At this point, Will is able to combine his photography with his relations to the native community. This provides a sense of balance, which Will did not posses before. Harlen is yet another source of balance for Will. The interaction between Harlen and Will proves a central insight into the perspective of each individual.

When Will returns to Medicine River for the second time, he realizes that he does not have a good idea of what it means to be a native Indian, that he has never really educated himself on his own heritage and background. This is when Harlen comes in and helps Will in search of his identity. Harlen’s character is most representative of the native community. It is predominantly though his friendship that Will gains a deeper understanding of the native way of life. Harlen symbolizes strength, care, companionship, and a sense of family. Leadership is the main idea that Harlen is trying to pass to Will. Will’s metaphor of Harlen as a spider in a web describes the role of Harlen in the community accurately. Harlen is known for drawing people together and somehow being connected to them. He is always present when someone in the community is troubled or needs help. When Will loses his job, Harlen offers the comfort of his home, and when he sees that Will is alone, he tries very hard to get Louise, as opposed to modern native woman, closer to Will. But, Will is resisting most of Harlen’s efforts in showing him how to get connected with his people and his roots. Will at times, when feels too alienated, retracts into his shell and refuses to come out and face his problems and does not solve any of his issues with himself or with others. Harlen slowly shows will that in order for him to move on to the next chapter of his life, he needs to make peace and understand his past and can’t just keep suppressing all his emotions and thoughts.

Will slowly realizes that, and sees that just taking responsibility for your actions is not enough and more needs to be done. He is no longer oblivious to his problems, he knows that he is missing couple of hoops from his social chain and in order to restore this chain to a whole again, he needs to take action. He needs to grow up, he needs to learn how to apologize, how to love and see that he is being loved, to make connections with people, not only for business, but for pleasure. His healing process lies within his social surrounding and he needs to open his eyes and see what he has missed from his childhood, as well as adulthood. Will slowly learns from Lionel and Harlen how important it is to acknowledge his roots and how he should be working in preserving their native identities, culture and way of lives. He learns that apologizing is one way of letting grudges go, and in order to become close to his roots, he needs to work from inside. He starts to strengthen his relationship with his brother, by calling him and apologizing for throwing his ball in the river. This act could have been just an excuse for Will to open the lines of communication again with his brother. In a way, he is sharing his growth with his family member, the most important person in his life, being sharing it with the rest of the world.

”Equus” is about Alan Strang, who is more than the average troubled adolescent of the usual domestic world. He is the most isolated, troubled of all the most other characters. The son of a painter and former schoolteacher, Alan is practically illiterate. His father forbids television in the home, so Alan sneaks off to watch Western at the neighbors’ house. An avowed atheist, Frank Strang considers the religious instructions Dora gives to Alan just so much “bad sex”. Dora for part assures Alan that God sees him everywhere; she has read the Bible to him often. Alan especially enjoys passages from Job and Revelation, which refer to the strength of and power of horses. Alan is now caught in between to extreme worlds. If he turns to one way, he will lose the other one. So Alan ends up forming an obsession with his worship that his god blocked intimacy with any other. Caught between passion for another being and passion for his horse-god, which like his mother’s god, could see him everywhere, Alan struck out to blind the god, who dissatisfied relationship with Jill Mason. This is the point, when Alan hits bottom and people around him realize that they need to take responsibility for him and get him help rather than putting him in jail.

This is when Dysart comes in to help Alan from a healthier identity for himself. Dysart knows what he must do in order to lead the minds of trouble children into normal patterns, but he is himself led back to the borders of the rational, sensing something vital beyond: “that boy has known a passion more ferocious than I have felt in any second of my life… I envy it”. He assumes the role of a detective to find the rationale behind Alan’s unusual behavior. Alan is attempting to unite an existential and sexual search for identity with ritualistic presentations of spiritual freedom. Alan reveals the hypocrisy in Dysart’s life as the primitive’s brand of worship becomes more real to the psychiatrists than does his own preference for the “normal”. Martin Dysart concludes that he can lead Alan into a normal existence, but it will probably be a drab, routine life. He himself remains draws to the non-rational source of human passion: “I need, more desperately than my children need me, a way of seeing in the dark.” His need is marked with remnant of the worship he is taking away from Alan; “there is now, in my mouth, this sharp chain. And it never comes out.”

Will and Alan struggle to find their identities within their social realm. They both go through a struggle socially and psychologically to find out their roles and the pattern of their behaviors. Will and Alan both come out of their crises with a flourishing result, but in two different ways. Alan gets a good foundation to work and build whereas. Will polishes and tailors his old one. Will become more in touch with his inner self, where as Alan finds a totally new start that he has to get used to and understand. Will is with his involvement with James and Harlen and Alan through Dysart.

Medicine River makes non0native readers think a little longer and harder about the lives of the first people they live among and the places they inhabit. As a non-native reader, it is extra difficult to feel and understand Will, because we did not go through all the steps. Although Will starts like a foreigner, he becomes part of the unique community eventually.


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Gianakaris, C. J. “Peter Shaffer A Casebook”. The Sun And The Horse: Peter Shaffer’s Search For Worship. Stacy R James. New York and London: Gereld Publishing, Inc. 1991.

King, Thomas. Medicine River. Canada: Penguin, 1995.

Plunka, Gene A. “Peter Shaffer Roles, Rites & Rituals In The Theatre.” Equus: The Beat Goes On. Eds. Gene A Plunka. London and Toronto: Associated University Press, Inc. 1988.

Shaffer, Peter. Equus. England: Regin Books, 1974.

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Research: Critic, Speech, Novel

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