1298 A tribute to Richard Wagamese

Richard Wagamese Selected: What Comes from Spirit
by Richard Wagamese, with an introduction by Drew Hayden Taylor

Madeira Park: Douglas & McIntyre, 2021
$24.95 / 9781771622752

Reviewed by Paul Falardeau


When he died at 61, Richard Wagamese still had a lot to say, though he had already said so much. The Ojibwe author was a leader of the renaissance of Indigenous writers and artists in so-called Canada. His presence and influence is felt from television, as a writer for the classic, North of 60, to memoir, to his moving novels. Many will know his seminal work, Indian Horse, now also a celebrated movie, that has been a part of the uncomfortable, painful, but deeply important reckoning around the Canadian government’s assimilation plan, which they called residential schools. For me, personally, Wagamese’s best work was the searing story of redemption and family, Medicine Walk, a western for the modern day that I could not put down.

In this new posthumous release, What Comes from Spirit, we find yet another side of Wagamese. Something personal and raw in a way we first glimpsed in 2016’s Embers. This is not an imaginary world, existing as words on page, but the world that Wagamese truly lived in. This parting gift is a conversation with the man himself and is suitably simultaneously revealing and enigmatic.

Richard Wagamese (1955-2017). Photo courtesy Writers’ Trust of Canada

What Comes from Spirit is a selected collection of non-fiction. This comes in several forms, including short snippets of conversation, satori-inducing meditations and autobiographical prose, many of which have never been released before in print. Like with Embers, much of the writing here originally saw the light of day on Wagamese’s social media, written between July 2012 and July 2013. At first, then, one might be forgiven for assuming this will be like those “rarities and b-sides” collection that record labels used to release when an artist had not produced new music in a while: Sometimes a source of interesting cuts and, maybe, some juicy biographical information, but mostly a collector’s piece, its contents perhaps better left sitting on the cutting-room floor. One might also think the short, reflective bursts of writing, alongside pearls of wisdom, hit closer to Rupi Kaur’s poems or a Chicken Soup for the Soul anthology. While there is some truth there, What Comes from Spirit would be a great book to pick up and put down on the train to work each day — there is something more at play here.

Perhaps this collection is closer in spirit to the offerings of the mystic poets and philosophers like Lao Tzu or Han Shan, the musings of men in love and awe with the natural world, aware that their full revelation could never be fully, truly captured in writing, so opting instead to let their readers dig between the lines for the whole truth. Wagamese’s ostensibly unconnected writings offer the reader an endless depth when considered together as a whole. What seems at first disparate, starts to take shape in the room between passages. As Drew Hayden Taylor suggests in his introduction to the book, “Treasure these timeless words. Honour his thoughts. But don’t read it too fast. Soak it in. Enjoy every morsel. Linger on each page because every paragraph has nuggets of understanding.” Indeed, this collection does feel like it is a conversation with Wagamese, which is only complete when readers take the time to stew in its words and respond by imagining their own meaning.

Richard Wagamese of Kamloops. Photo by Debra Powell

The editors of this collection have given it over to five loose categories that seem to roughly muse on topics like history, roots, choice, connectedness, and other mercurial ideas. For his part, Wagamese is not prescriptive either. He walks with us, and guides us, but never gives away the goods. At times he is precise in his writing’s intent and meaning, but there is always room for the reader to find their own meaning, whether we are watching wood ducks in a swamp, or enduring the pain of separation as a ward of the foster care system.

Though almost every page is categorically quotable, nothing really works as a summative statement. Though this work was mostly written later in life, it is timeless, containing stories from his entire life and beyond. Part of Wagamese’s magic as a writer is his ability to be brutally honest and at the same time soft, forgiving, and willing to move forward. Like the late career offerings of artists like Johnny Cash, David Bowie, or Leonard Cohen, there is a statement here that is open and raw, lucidly fixed in reality, yet that remains dreamlike and unburdened, a knowing wink and nod of the head. The road, after all, does go on ahead, as Wagamese assures us:

What comes from spirit is beyond time, beyond place. It exists in another realm and when I get in touch with it, when I get in touch with my essential self I am transported, altered, changed, empowered and I become less a human being working than a perfect spirit moving. This is powerful. This is Truth. This is spiritual.

In the end, this is what we get from Wagamese: one last chance to speak in loving conversation with a treasured friend, a beloved elder; a last story from a master storyteller. It’s just how you’d expect it to be too: helpings of pain and love, the passing of knowledge and experience, some gentle guidance about what is important and how to live well, and the room and freedom to take it next where we need it most.

Richard Wagamese. Photo courtesy Kamloops this Week, March 11, 2017


Paul Falardeau

Paul Falardeau is a poet, essayist, brewer and most recently, an English teacher, living in Vancouver, a city on the unceded lands of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh First Nations, whom he offers respect and gratitude. He is a graduate of University of the Fraser Valley and Simon Fraser University. He has published in Pacific Rim Review of BookssubTerrain, and Cascadia Review, and he contributed an essay to Making Waves: Reading B.C. and Pacific Northwest Literature (Anvil Press, 2010). Editor’s note: Paul Falardeau has also reviewed books by Lydia Kwa, Sam WeibeYasuko Thanh, Richard Van Camp, Michelle Sylliboy, Trevor Carolan, Judith Penner, Joanne Arnott, Lorna Crozier, Matt Rader, and Eve Joseph, for The Ormsby Review.


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Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie

The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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3 comments on “1298 A tribute to Richard Wagamese

  1. Wow! Loved reading your review, Paul. I may check out this book of a truly remarkable man. And applause for you too. Excellent!!

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