Lately I have been fascinated by Canadian First Nations writers, and the writing of Richard Wagamese shimmers. Indian Horse is the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway from northern Ontario. His life is marred by the horrors of the residential schools, which systematically separated children from families and tore the heart out of generations of First Nations people.
After Saul’s siblings are forced into one such school, his family retreats into the bush. Gods Lake is a place where the spirit world and physical world meet, and there Saul discovers that he is capable of visions and communion with his ancestors. His revelations begin an emotional journey to discover his own identity.
Eventually forced to retreat from the bush as winter approaches, Saul finds himself, tragically, in the very place his family was trying to avoid – the residential school. There Saul witnesses abuse of every kind, as well as the suicides of a number of children. He goes into survival mode, caring only for himself.
Yet hope arrives unexpectedly, as the new priest, Father Leboutillier, introduces the students to hockey which quickly becomes the focus of the novel. Using his ability to “see beyond”, Saul becomes an incredible player. In scenes of striking beauty, he abandons himself to the game and lifts himself, if only momentarily, into the spiritual realm.
Soon he is taken in by a family on a reserve and joins the local hockey team. As his hockey prowess grows, Saul begins to identify less as a victim, or a child torn from his family, and more as an athlete. But identity is constructed of self-perception as well as the perceptions of others. In the hockey world he experiences the reality of being an Indian in a white world, subject to the bigotry and hatred of the ruling class. He becomes progressively angry, drinking to quash the pain of racism and the legacy of the residential school that still haunts him.
From the grace and freedom brought on by the game of hockey to the sadness and despair of the residential school, Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse vividly presents the emotional highs and lows of growing up Native in 1960s Canada.