Indian Horse: A Book Review
Richard Wagamese was a gifted writer, and he died way too young. Indian Horse is his final novel. It tells the story of Saul Indian Horse, a member of the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway from the territory along the Winnipeg River. It reads like a well-written memoir; gathered, I suspect, from the author’s personal history and the experiences his indigenous family passed from generation to generation.
We meet Saul Indian Horse as he begins his life story. He’s been encouraged to write his memoir as part of a recovery program at The New Dawn Centre where he’s being treated as a self-described hard-core drunk. Telling his story might, he figures, get him “out of this place” more quickly. And what a story he tells.
As a boy, Saul followed in the tradition of his ancestors, the many generations of native Canadians, hunting, fishing, learning to read the way of the land. He lived with his parents, grandmother and brother, far removed from the hustle and bustle of city life. But this was the 1960’s, and the Zhaunagush, or white man, was fast encroaching into the First Nation’s territory.
The death of his brother and disappearance of his parents leave Saul and his grandmother stranded at the family’s ancestral home, God’s Lake. When his grandmother dies, the young Saul is captured and becomes a resident of St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. The mission of the school is to “remove the Indian” from the young residents.
The Ojibway were one with nature. And that was ripped away from them. In Saul’s words, “I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies. St. Jerome’s took all the light from my world.” St. Jerome’s was a chilling and cruel environment. So grim, so hideous, so sad, so very real.
Saul Indian Horse was spared much of the ruthless brutality. Hockey was his savior. He was gifted, and he was deeply committed. He taught himself. He worked alone, extraordinarily hard, to hone his skills. Befriended by the hockey coach, Father Leboutilier, he ultimately, in spite of his small size and young age, earned his way onto the team. His gifts: to see the big picture, to know what would happen next on the ice, his speed, his ability to make plays, his willingness to share. He saw on the ice what he felt in nature.
Hockey was his ticket out of the school. His gifts led to a professional opportunity. But 1960’s Canada sports fans didn’t take well to an Indian on the ice. Prejudice and the demeaning of his history sucked the thrill out of hockey. Anger replaced joy. He left and took a job as a forester.
He found solace in the land, the trees, the lake, the animals. It took him back to his love of the unvarnished country. But bigotry and discrimination reared its ugly head once more. It turned out that foresters had no room for First Nation natives either, no matter how skilled and industrious.
By the time he was 18, the bush was no longer his haven. Rage possessed him. He became a migrant. He traveled, worked odd jobs and took to drink, finally ending up at the New Dawn Centre. He started writing his story. He faced his past.
Indian Horse is a gritty, emotional read. The passion is palpable. It’s yet another book that exposes the cruelty of prejudice. Saul Indian Horse suffers the demise of his family, extreme persecution, profound loss. It’s shocking, yet somehow not surprising. There’s no pity, though, just sadness.
This book makes my must-read list. It’s an excellent choice for book clubs. It’s powerful, expressive and authentic…. and the best book I’ve read this year.
Joel Crockett enjoys writing and sharing short stories, book reviews and tales from his past. He's working on a novel and spends some time playing records on local radio station KTDE. He also facilitates the Mendonoma Writers Group.
Editor’s note: Indian Horse author Richard Wagamese died March 10, 2017. He was 61.