Coming home has been a common theme in literature probably since before stories were written down. That doesn't just mean going to the physical place you were born or where your family lives, it also involves a psychological and spiritual journey to find that place inside that allows you to be comfortable in your skin.
In his latest from Doubleday Books (a division of Random House Canada), Dream Wheels, the Canadian author Richard Wagamese tackles the concept of finding your way home from a number of characters' perspectives. Although each has their own journey to make, their destination is the same.
This is the Wolfchild ranch, home to three generations of rodeo Indian/cowboys. Now an Indian cowboy might sound like an oxymoron to some people who get locked into stereotypes, but in the 20th century anybody who can ride well and has a way with animals is appreciated on a ranch. It's only logical then that some of those people are going to be people of native descent, and some of them are going to get involved on the rodeo circuit.
The Wolfchilds have sent three generations of men into the rings to fight the broncos, hogtie the calves, and most dangerously ride the bulls. It's a bull that's caused the youngest of the Wolfchilds, Joe Willie, – the one who was considered the sure thing – to have to make his long trip home from inside the prison of the hurt and pain of being injured too badly to ever ride again.
By contrast, Claire Hartley and her 15-year-old son Aiden have never had a home. Claire was the daughter of a junkie who died when she was young, and hasn't found a place for herself in the world yet. She travels from man to man, looking for a home in the false promises of support they give her, until she feels like she is trapped with no way out.
When a friend of Aiden's botches a robbery and takes Aiden down with him, Claire knows she has to do something to save her son. With the aid of the lead detective on Aiden's case, it is set up for them to travel to the Wolfchild ranch to see if the work and the life will help them both.
Wagamese enters the dangerous territory here of cliché. The angry urban black youth meets the angry rural Indian cowboy; after confrontation they find common ground and end up helping each other recover through their respective knowledge.
What saves this relationship, and the dynamic involved, is the authenticity Wagamese is able to bring to each of his characters and the unsentimental manner in which he treats them. They become real people in his hands, and everything they do or say is justified in terms of how he has had them thinking. It makes sense that the two, Joe Willie and Aiden are able to help each other because both of them come from the same place emotionally and whether they know it or not are looking to find the way to fit into the world.
Wagamese has written on these themes before; it's one that affects plenty of Native people. But this time he has shown how easy it is for anyone to become lost, even if they have the solid backing of family and tradition. You still have to choose to be a part of it, because no one can force you to join in.
Everything is about the choices you make, that is what it really comes down – even from the time you are small and choose to stand instead of to crawl. The natives in this book have a term for living by choices. They call it walking the good Red Road – not for the colour of their skin, but for the colour of the blood that flows through the deepest and darkest parts of your body. You have to choose whether or not you want to walk the road that brings you into balance with the world by having the courage to look right inside of your self with an honest assessment.
There's no way, they say, that you're going to find your way home if you can't first walk the path to self-awareness. How can you know what your home even looks like if you don't know who you are?
Now if all this sounds heavy and philosophical, and awkward to put into a book form, it might be in the hands of a lesser writer. But Wagamese manages to incorporate everything seamlessly into his storytelling. The stuff I've talked about is never put so baldly that it stands out like a sore thumb or takes away from the story at hand.
One of the truly amazing aspects of this book is the way in which Wagamese takes us inside the head of the people who are still cowboys, who ride the bulls. He is able to maintain the romance that most of us associate with the way of life, while at the same time making it real. We come to know and respect these people and their attitudes towards life and each other, not just because they are cowboys but because they are complete human beings.
Dream Wheels is a great story about finding your way in an ever increasingly difficult world. While family and tradition are sure to help you, they can only offer you what you choose to accept. The toughest ride any of us can take is the ride along the path to self-awareness. Wagamese dispels the myths of there being any magic tricks or easy way of doing this, but at the same time he shows us what a liberating experience it can be.