Murder at Medicine Lodge by Mardi Oakley Medawar (thoughts)
As someone who loves traditional mysteries, particularly as comfort reading, and also strives to ensure half of what I read is written by authors of colour, I face a serious dilemma. The mystery genre is dominated by white authors, and what authors of colour there are tend to write grittier fare than I prefer. This makes sense: after all, for most minorities, the police and courts and justice system represent institutionalised racism rather than a comforting, orderly righting of wrongs. I have more thoughts on this, and will probably devote a whole post to it, but right now the point is, in these circumstances Mardi Oakley Medawar is such a treasure for me!
Of Cherokee descent, Medawar writes just the kind of mysteries I love to curl up with: her primary series features Tay-Bodal, a nineteen-century Kiowa healer who’s on the fringes of his warrior-focussed society, whose everlasting curiousity and wry, self-deprecating humour make him a marvelous amateur sleuth. I love the series for its historical setting (Tay-Bodal and his tribe, living in the northern Texas/Oklahoma are at the forefront of the US government’s westward expanding, land grabbing policies) and cultural insights. The integrity of the Kiowa’s social structure and worldview is clearly conveyed, and thanks to Medawar making Tay-Bodal a bit of an outsider, the explanations necessary to white readers feel more organic than forced. Tay-Bodal is regularly torn between his cultural norms and his curiousity, both in the fields of murder and the medical field his life is actually devoted to. The supporting characters are wonderful too, from Tay-Bodal’s much higher ranking and strongly opinionated wife to his good friend, a shaman whose high status would usually prohibit a friendship with lowly Tay-Bodal.
Murder at Medicine Lodge is the third in the series and puts its mystery right at the heart of Native American/white relations. The Civil War has recently ended, and several Native American tribes have gathered at Medicine Lodge to try to create a peace treaty with the US government. There’s considerable mistrust on all sides, and when a US soldier is found murdered on the plains, his superiors believe Tay-Bodal’s chief is the culprit and intend to hang him. Thus, Tay-Bodal must race against the clock to figure out what actually happened. The mystery is well plotted and includes some fascinating historical tidbits. All in all, I loved reading this and am only sad that there’s only one Tay-Bodal book left for me to discover. I hope Medawar plans to continue such a wonderful series, and I highly recommend it to all readers, particularly those who are perhaps nervous to read books by authors of colour that are sad or dark or depressing. I promise, the Tay-Bodal series manages to be both a comfort read without compromising the realities of nineteenth century Kiowa life. They don’t have to be read in order, but if you’d like to start at the beginning, the first one is Death at Rainy Mountain. Have fun!
Suggested Companion Reads
- DreadfulWater Shows Up by Thomas King : a fabulous contemporary mystery with a traditional structure by one of my favourite Native American authors.
- So Far From God by Ana Castillo : if the Southwest setting of Murder at Medicine Lodge appeals to you, this a beautiful Chicana story set in New Mexico. It’s not as comfortable a read, but the strong female cast and touches of magical realism still made it the kind of book I love from page one.
- The Beekeeper’s Apprentice by Laurie King : it’s impossible for me to think about historical mysteries & not include the Mary Russell books, some of my favourites ever! This is the first one, in case you’ve yet to discover the series.