On Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Saul Indian Horse is in trouble, and there seems to be only one way out. As he journeys back through his life as a northern Ojibway, from the horrors of residential school to his triumphs on the hockey rink, he must question everything he knows. In Indian Horse, author Richard Wagamese has crafted a wise and magical novel about love, family and the power of spirit.

Richard Wagamese*’s Indian Horse was recommended to me by Jay–friend and subscriber who once suggested we do a month of posts for reluctant readers, yes, that Jay–when I admitted to being somewhat taken *cough-obsessed-cough* with hockey since I started reading Check Please! by Ngozi Ukazu. Like Check Please! Wagamese’s novel does not require you to know or even like hockey. Unlike Check Please! hockey is not just the thread that connects characters together in Indian Horse, hockey is living, breathing, and life-giving. And though those sentences seem contradictory, I assure you, they are not. To be completely honest, I only picked hockey as the starting point of this post because the book has mostly left me incoherent. Indian Horse deserves all the awards.

The novel is structured in a way that moves the narrative from older Saul to younger Saul and then back again. We start with Saul in his thirties at a treatment centre–dealing with his alcoholism, and the trauma that fuelled it–relating the story of how he came to be where he is and, of course, where he goes next. For most of the novel we are reading about Saul’s childhood and young adult life, which is one of the reasons I categorized this one as having crossover appeal. (I know, it’s arbitrary, but this is one of the ways people define what is and is not “for” younger readers. *shrug*) The language, whether Wagamese is describing Ojibway traditions or hockey plays and strategies, is beautifully simple, beautifully poetic, and just straight up beautiful:

“There is an order to the game, Saul, though it might not be readily visible yet. There’s a genuine rhythm under all this mayhem. When they grasp the rules you’ll start to see it,” he said.

“I see it already,” I said.

“You do?”

“The lines,” I said. “They create space. The space you have to move into to make it happen.”

“You see that?”

“Yes.”

And I did … There are stories of teachers among our people who could determine where a particular moose was, a bear, the exact time the fish would make their spawning runs, My great-grandfather Shabogeesick, the original Indian Horse, had that gift. The world spoke to him. It told him where to look. Shabogeesick’s gift had been passed on to me. There’s no other explanation for how I was able to see this foreign game so completely right away. — [58]

Which accounts for yet another reason why this book has crossover appeal. Older teens can definitely appreciate this book for the gem that it is as well as any adult could.

The story itself is difficult to talk about, not least because of the events that lead Saul Indian Horse to his passion for hockey. One by one, it seems like Saul’s family is being taken from him, until finally, Saul is found passed out in the snow and taken to a residential school, the very establishment that his family fought so hard to keep him out of. The lines that opens the chapter on the residential school are heart-breaking:

They took me to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallowed all light, all bodies. St. Jerome’s took all the light from my world. — [43]

But even more heart-breaking is the knowledge that all the horrors that took place at St. Jerome’s was being drawn from real life. The only positive that both Saul and the readers receive is when a new Father, a younger, seemingly kinder man, arrives and introduces Saul to the game. A game that would love Saul back as much as he loved it. Saul teaches himself to get better, so much so that he is asked to play for a Native team and gets to leave the school behind. (Side Note: For those of you who’ve read this, can we please talk about how awesome Virgil is in the comments? Please and thank you.) Of course, it is easy to physically walk away from something that scares you, easier still when you feel like you have triumphed over it in some way, but trauma is far less easier to leave behind, especially when it is exacerbated by every slur, every exclusion, and every condescending comment. And so, the game challenges Saul in more ways than one.

In terms of writing, there were a couple of instances that gave me pause–the use of the G-slur and also the phrase “black heart of northern Ontario” seem like odd choices for a book that explicitly deals with racism–but largely, Wagamese’s use of language is skillful and his storytelling is pure perfection. I feel like I end a lot of my gushy posts this way, but really, it is so hard to measure how much love I have for this book. It is, easily, one of my all-time favourites. Definitely recommended! <3

*Does anyone else feel irrationally angry when spellcheck underlines a name. Like, no, you dweeb, just because the name Bob Robert or something ridiculous doesn’t mean I’ve spelt it wrong! HE IS FAMOUS AND WONDERFUL YOU ANNOYING RED SQUIGGLE!!

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