An Outsider Looking In
Why the Insider Cannot Narrate
Will, a half breed Indian who grew up in Calgary, is the narrator in Thomas King’s Medicine River. As an adult, Will worked in Toronto as a photographer, but on a trip back home for his mother’s funeral, he encountered Harlen, who planted the idea that Will should move to Medicine River (88-93). Will had no plans to move to Medicine River, until his return to Toronto where his boss had sold the photography studio, leaving Will without a job. Unsuccessfully freelancing, Will remembered Harlen’s persuasive suggestion to move to Medicine River and be the Indian photographer in the community (92-96). King chose Will as an outsider to narrate the story rather than Harlen as an insider for several reasons. Will as an unbiased observer would be more likely to share the truth rather than Harlen, whose agenda for community, fixed friendships, and connections cause him to manipulate the people around him, skew the truth in his perceptions, and make him an unreliable narrator.
Harlen is not the most reliable narrator. At times, he is somewhat mysterious, for he never talks about himself, his past, or his relationship with others. In chapter 2, Floyd tells Will that Harlen injured his ankle when he was a powwow dancer in his younger years. When Will brings it up, “Harlen’s face tensed up” (21) and he denies that he has any talent for dancing and says that his cousin Billy is the dancer in the family. It is unclear if Harlen is ashamed of his past or why he gets so tense. Will reports back to Floyd and learns that “Harlen doesn’t have a cousin Billy” (23). Scenarios like this call into question Harlen’s reliability as the reader is uncertain if he is trustworthy.
Harlen’s agenda within the community is to bring everyone together. He “sees the good in everyone and is always trying to help” (25) and “kept up on all the gossip. Nothing happened on the reserve that Harlen didn’t know about” (26). Will describes Harlen as a “spider on a web” (29) who has to fix the web when it’s broken. Harlen wants conflicts resolved and a perfect unity within his community. This agenda makes him an unreliable narrator because he is more likely to paint situations in a rose colored perspective, where all the members of his community are good.
Harlen manipulates the people around him in his efforts to form a stronger community bond. He manipulates Will to move to Medicine River, then to join the basketball team and in several instances, suggests Will takes a hand in fixing broken friendships and mentoring troubled teammates. Harlen manipulates Will into dating Louise, even going so far as to say the poor woman is all alone during her pregnancy, but upon his first contact with Louise, Will finds that Harlen has manipulated a handful of other men to ask Louise out and upon arriving at the hospital, Will finds Louise is surrounded by family. Harlen’s attention to truth, or lack thereof, shows that he would be unreliable as a narrator. His skewing of the truth is his way to promote peace, harmony, and community.
Harlen’s love of community gives him a blind spot for the nature of his neighbors. In Chapter 4, January Pretty Weasel’s abusive husband Jake dies from a gunshot wound. It is highly possible that January killed her husband, yet the authorities and Harlen are content to view the death as a suicide. In fact, Harlen seems puzzled by the suicide, saying Jake was “such a good friend to you and me and the rest of the boys. You know, he’d always buy the boys a beer or loan them a few dollars if they were short. Always telling a joke and laughing” (42). Harlen sees Jake as a good guy; even in light of witnessing Jake abuse January during a ball game. Will reminisces about another abused woman, Mrs. Oswald, from his childhood, who was also abused. After her husband beats her up, Mrs. Oswald, with an arm in a cast, bruised face, and missing teeth, still refers to the incident as her “accident” (47). Mrs. Oswald cannot admit to her own abuse, just as the community and Harlen cannot. Harlen cannot admit to January’s abuse because of his rosy view of people, but Will can. “Jake beat up on January. It was no secret” (43). January can admit it and Will can and therefore, Will is a more reliable narrator than Harlen, who cannot even see the truth.
It Takes an Outsider
Will is an observer. As an outsider, sometimes outsiders have a better perspective of the truth because of their lack of connection with the people in the community. Will observes what is going on around him and reports events as they occur. Harlen, on the other hand, is a fixer, he is an active participant in the community and seeks to mend friendships and fix situations. When Big John and Eddie fight, Harlen sees it as a necessity to “get Big John and Eddie back as friends again” (57) even though Will says they never were friends in the first place. To Harlen, everyone in his community must get along, be friends, and live in harmony. In relaying the incident, Harlen is unable to see anything but the good characteristics in both men and how they have impacted the community positively, whereas Will is able to give the reader information about the two men’s fight, their anger, and the negative aspects of the situation. Will can admit when there is a problem, but Harlen “could always find allowances lying around” (73). Harlen could find a reason, an excuse, and all in his efforts to maintain peace in his community. Ray, a big mouth character who constantly has to one-up his team mates with I’m better than you stories is encouraged by Harlen. Will, a mediocre basketball player is cheered on by Harlen. Clyde, a frequently in trouble young man, is excused by Harlen as being unlucky rather than in making bad choices that caused his trouble. “Clyde’s unlucky, you know. Wrong place, wrong time” (114).
In many instances, Will shares details of different events that Harlen is able to justify, excuse, explain away, and/or completely ignore. If Harlen had been the narrator, his skewing of events, his agenda for community connections, and his manipulative nature would make him an unreliable narrator. As an insider, Harlen having a deep connection with his neighbors and friends would be blind to their faults. In his quest for harmony and peace, Harlen would be hesitant to share negative details lest the reader view Medicine River folks as less than perfect. Two comments by Will struck me as vital in describing Harlen. “Sometimes Harlen could circle for hours” (51) tells the reader that Harlen could not share a story without many digressions, backtracking, side notes and other distractions within his perambulations. “There were dangerous curves and corners in Harlen’s mind, and none of them were marked” (62) is another example of Harlen’s circular thinking. His inability to stick to the facts of the story makes him an unreliable narrator. Will’s status as an outsider and an observer make him the ideal narrator. He is able to see and share the truth, while still recognizing the special characteristics of the people in the Medicine River community. He portrays the good and the bad, while still giving the people their dignity and allowing the reader to see the special people who make up the community.