I’m writing this just before my reading group discusses Indian Horse because I wanted to be clear what my initial thoughts about this novel were. This is the first novel I’ve read by Wagamese. I haven’t decided whether I will read more even though he has written at least eleven books and won the Canadian Authors Association MOSAID Technologies Inc. Award for Fiction in 2007, and the George Ryga Award for Social Awareness in Literature in 201.
Indian Horse is a bildungsroman, but it is more than a coming of age story. As part of his rehabilitation therapy at The New Dawn Centre, the narrator Saul Indian Horse is given permission “to write things down” because he feel he can’t tell his story “in the circle” (3). The book is Saul’s apologia for his life.
Perhaps as a result of the fact that the novel takes the form of the personal recollections of a boy torn from his aboriginal culture and subjected to the torture to the residential school system, the chapters are very short. This brevity makes the novel an easy read. But the events of the work are not easy to read. What Saul Indian Horse experiences is more than shocking. More than outraging. At age eight, Saul is taken to St. Jerome’s, the residential school, and all he “knew of Indian died” (8). Saul watches as his fellow students “die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia, and broken hearts” (55). And then there were “the nighttime invasions . . . . the cries of distress, the sound of skin sliding against skin and the low adult growls . . .born of a hunger none of us could ever understand,” the secret acts “never spoken of. In the daylight . . . [the childen] would look at each other blankly, so that . . . [they] would not cause any further shame” (81).
What releases Saul Indian Horse from the school is his discovery of hockey. His skill on skates and with the puck take him from St. Jerome’s to the mining town of Manitouwadge and the Kellys, an Ojibway family who take Saul in so that he may play with the Manitouwadge team, the Moose, from where he makes it to Toronto and a minor league team. But this is Ontario in the sixties and “The white people thought it was their game. They thought it was their world” (136).
Saul does not make it into the NHL; instead, his life descends into alcoholism and self-loathing and the opportunity for renewal offered by The New Dawn Centre.
And there is renewal and optimism. This is not a story of failure but of overcoming adversity and rediscovery of a culture and reaffirmation of self. Although Indian Horse is presented as fiction, it is rooted in events that are a national shame. What happens to Saul Indian Horse happened to numberless first nations people.
I found myself at the end of the novel left with the shame of the observer, even voyeur, who sees but does nothing. One cannot help but feel a share of a collective guilt for the sins of the past. This discomfort makes it difficult for me to assess the novel as literature. It is a powerful novel, but it moves very quickly and nothing in it actually surprised me. Not being a hockey lover, I found myself skimming through the detailed accounts of the hockey games.
All in all, I felt held at a distance by the book, partly because I prefer longer chapters and longer sentences. But this is a first person narrative. Saul Indian Horse would not write academic prose. I felt alien in the book: alien in the landscape of northern Ontario, alien in a Canada of forty years ago, a Canada I did not live in, and a trespasser in a spiritual world that is not mine.
Perhaps my very alienation is testament to the power of the work. I will be very interested to hear what my reading group has to say.
For those of you who are unfamiliar with the Residential Schools in Canada, here are some useful links: http://www.residentialschoolsettlement.ca/english.html
There are many more.