Indian Horse is a stark, yet incredibly beautifully written novel by Ojibway writer Richard Wagamese. As one of Canada’s foremost Indigenous authors and storytellers, Wagamese’s body of work includes six novels, a book of poetry (Runaway Dreams), and five non-fiction titles, including two memoirs and an anthology of his newspaper columns.
Indian Horse tells the story of Saul Indian Horse. It is set in northern Ontario in the 1950’s and 60’s. It begins with Saul, a former minor league hockey star, recovering in a treatment centre for alcoholism; he is chronicling his life experience as a means of facing his addiction. Although a deeply personal tale, it is also reflective of the wider intergenerational trauma experienced by thousands of Indigenous residential school survivors across Canada.
It begins in the northern Ontario where Saul lives off the land with his parents, grandmother and older brother Ben. Saul is happiest when learning traditional skills and family lore from his grandmother. Both of his parents are residential school survivors. They desperately hope that living in the wilderness, away from their community, will save their boys from being taken away to from them; but despite the family’s best efforts, the boys are eventually found, and taken against their will.
Once Saul arrives at St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, his experience is harrowing: the students are subjected to beatings, sexual abuse and ritualized humiliation. The school is not designed to teach them to thrive in a new world but to break their spirits and erase their traditional ways of life. Although exceptionally difficult to read, Wagamese truthfully reflects the dire reality experienced by thousands of children across Canada: chronicling a dark chapter in history that should never be forgotten.
A form of hope arrives for Saul when an idealistic young priest introduces the older boys to ice hockey. The priest takes Saul under his wing, and allows him to play, even though he is younger than the other players on the team. The reader observes eight-year-old Saul exuberantly clearing the snow off the ice for the school team and practicing stick handling in the pre-dawn hours using frozen horse turds for pucks. Saul has a natural talent for the game and, like all great players, he visualizes complex plays before they unfold on the ice. He is soon outplaying the older boys, and he is eventually given permission to board with a family in Manitouwadge, so he can join the Native Tournament Circuit.
Saul finds love and acceptance in his new home: both with the Kelly family and his team, “The Moose”. He enjoys camaraderie with his fellow players both on an off the ice. But as Saul’s opportunities increase, so does his exposure to the overt racism and discrimination of the 1960s hockey world, and Canadian society. Saul’s rise up through the ranks of the minor-league is swift but it is also fleeting. He is stripped of his passion for the game and he ultimately walks away from his dream: adopting the nomadic life of a drifter. After many lost years, he hits rock bottom. With some support, he eventually finds his way home, rediscovering his connection to the land, his people, and himself.
Wagamese’s use of language throughout this novel is masterful. He is an incredibly skilled storyteller, with an uncanny descriptive power. I especially appreciated the visceral way that he captured Saul’s experience playing hockey; it helped me to understand the joy of the game. Throughout the book, I found myself stopping and rereading sections, just to take in its richness. Indian Horse is one of the most heart breaking and heart opening books that I have ever read. It is a testament to the resiliency of the human spirit and a stunningly beautiful piece of literature that everyone should experience.