Review: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

I don’t know what brought this about, but lately I can’t get enough of Canadian Aboriginal history. I think it started with Three Day Road by Joseph Boyden. Then, I read Through Black Spruce, and it changed things for me. I can’t explain it other than by saying that it suddenly made me piece together what I knew of Canadian history in a different way.

I thought about Sisters in the Wilderness by Charlotte Gray and how reading it taught me so much about “the Land” and how it was nearly impossible for settlers in Upper Canada to adapt to their new world. Of course, during that time and hundreds of years before, there were Indigenous peoples living off the land in whatever way they could. As a Canadian, you know that this is a part of your history, but I don’t think I really understood it until I read Boyden.

Richard Wagamese enriches this history in a similar way in Indian Horse.

Saul Indian Horse has been abandoned by his parents who have been forever changed by residential schools. He is struggling to survive with his grandmother as they journey through the bush en route to Minaki, Ontario, in the winter of 1961. As the cold and snow begin to take their toll, Saul is taken (read: kidnapped) by locals and put in the residential school in Kenora. What Saul comes to describe as a “hell on earth” is only made bearable by a young priest’s introduction of hockey to Saul and the young “Indians.” This book is the story of an Ojibway boy’s life during, and after a residential school, and how the sport of hockey aims to save his life.

I had heard a while back on Goodreads that this book was a standout, but I didn’t think much more about it after adding it to my TBR list. I don’t know about you, but I don’t read the back of books right before I read them. I might when I’m first browsing at the bookstore or after I hear a recommendation from a friend, but when I’m turning to the first page I like having the least number of expectations as possible.

So as I began Richard Wagamese’s novel, I wasn’t thinking about the residential schools. There’s nothing to be said, really. I felt betrayed by my own. The stereotypical view of Canadians is that they are respectful, helpful people who always have a “sorry” for a passing stranger. How could people have treated human beings like animals? And in the 60s? It is absolutely incomprehensible to me that they believed they were doing God’s work.

I’m not saying I didn’t know – in history class we were taught about the unjust treatment of Aboriginals in Canada. In school, however, they don’t give you stories. They give you dry facts. Place names and statistics that are glossed over and studied to pass a midterm. Wagamese presents these facts in a different way; from the point of view of an eight year old boy. That changes everything.

When Father Leboutilier comes to the school and is permitted to introduce hockey to the young boys, Saul puts everything into the learning of the sport to escape his everyday perils. The way Wagamese describes Father Leboutilier’s passion for hockey and how it makes its impression on Saul is accessible for anyone – hockey fan or not.

Wagamese’s words made my heart quicken as he described the first time Saul truly races around the ice. My anticipation mounts with Saul as he performs his morning chore of clearing the ice of the rink carefully, yet quickly, to allow for more time to practice stick handling. I have such a memory of that rink in the early morning after reading this novel, and it’s all from the clear pictures Wagamese writes in simple, yet effective language.

The author’s character development is one of my favourite things about this book. Wagamese doesn’t wax on with adjectives or past histories of men and women in his novel, yet I felt as though they could be real people. Belief in the possibility that characters could exist has been somewhat lacking for me in recent reading. It’s the “hand of God” style, where some authors seem to rule the story with their mighty pen; putting words on a page to suit the ebb and flow of their plot. From reading this book, I feel that Wagamese’s characters called the shots. I trusted him as a writer, and I believed that once Saul was on the page, he told his story the way it needed to be told.

On Canada Reads:

This book should not win because it’s about a dark time in Canada’s history. That’s extremely important, and I completely believe that every Canadian should read this book and learn as much as they can about their country’s terrible mistakes, but that’s not the only reason it should do well in the competition. Wagamese writes a compelling novel without being preachy, or without an undertone of anger in the story (though he has every right to be). The characters are strong, and their passion for hockey is contagious. I say good luck to Carol Huynh, and congratulate her on choosing such a worthy book. I have complete faith in her ability to debate and I look forward to her arsenal.

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