Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is a fantastic novel. He confronts head-on the brutal, racist and repugnant moment in history when Canada decided to forcibly remove indigenous children from their families and educate them in residential schools. This could easily take the novel into the pathos-thick territory from which there is no recovering, but Wagamese does not let his story become stuck in tragedy, violence, and misery. Instead, he and the novel’s protagonist, Saul Indian Horse, use hockey to lift themselves out of the potential pit of horror. This is not to say that Wagamese makes light of the residential school, but instead that he refuses to let it simply overrun his narrative.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend about Joseph Boyden’s latest book, The Orenda, and how he seems to be a prize and accolade magnet. L suggested that this is in part because he writes Canadian historical fiction and that he is willing to engage with the nation-state as a narrative object. I am not sure how I feel about Boyden – I liked Through Black Spruce and found Three Day Road a decent novel – but I am somewhat bothered by how he receives so much attention as a “Native” writer. Boyden has Metis blood in him, but, similar to Thomas King, he has made his way through academic circles and become a popular writer, in part, through that venue. This is not to say that they do not do valuable work (I think King’s Inconvenient Indian might become a landmark work in Canadian literature), or that you need to have some form of blood quantum in order to qualify as an indigenous writer. However, all the attention these two authors garner tends to obscure other equally deserving indigenous writers like Wagamese, Richard Van Camp, Eden Robinson, and many others. The 2013 Giller prize longlist and the 2013 Governor General’s Literary Award shortlist both included Boyden’s novel but not Wagamese’s.* Now I don’t want to suggest some kind of literary conspiracy here, but I do think the fact that Indian Horse primarily concerns a northern Ojibway family and takes place mainly in rural Canada does work against it. Literary prizes tend to be nationalistic in tone and choice, and this, I believe, prevents Wagamese from making any of these lists even though he deserves too (there might also be an element of “over-saturation” of rez-school horrors – which is problematic in its own right given the fact that Canada has not truly addressed the horrors it perpetrated and also problematic given the widespread accolades and celebration of Linden MacIntyre’s The Bishop’s Man, a novel about a Roman Catholic priest abusing white children).
Enough of my griping, let’s get back to Indian Horse. As I said earlier, hockey becomes an escape for Saul and some of the best sections of the book come when Wagamese describes him playing hockey. There is a magic in the words and a poetry that comes close to the sheer joy of playing hockey. Now I realize that not everyone loves hockey, but for me certain sports like hockey and soccer have a poetry in movement. As chidlren playing sports, we sometimes tap into this. Think about how excited you used to get to play tag or get to gym class (this might be a boy thing too…) Writing can sometimes capture this, and Wagamese does a good job of this. Of course, he also uses this kind of escape to make Saul’s fall from grace even more painful. Saul leaves the residential school and his adopted Native family in Maintouwadge for the minor hockey leagues and encounters systematic and brutal racism. He realizes very quickly that the white parents think hockey is there game and that Saul has no place playing it. Eventually, he gives up and takes to an itinerant lifestyle and heavy drinking. Saul begins recording his memoir as he dries out in a rehab centre. What strikes me about this narrative setup is that it foregrounds recovery and hope while still doing justice to the very real trauma that Saul and his family experienced. Indian Horse is easily one of my favorite reads this year, and I hope to teach it in the coming years whenever I get the chance because I think more people need to hear this story.
I highly recommend this novel to anyone who reads. Consider it an essential read for 2013.
Wagamese, Richard. Indian Horse. Vancouver: Douglas & MacIntyre, 2012. Print.
*Just after publishing this post, I realized that Indian Horse was included in the CBC’s 2013 edition of Canada Reads, a game-show like series where five people defend a book that they think all of Canada should read. Unfortunately, Indian Horse lost out to Lisa Moore’s February. I haven’t listened to that year’s edition, so I can’t comment as to why it lost or how. The show is a fascinating listen as all kinds of different forms of politics get played out, and, sometimes, the book you wouldn’t expect to win does (as in 2007 when Heather O’Neill’s Lullabies for Little Criminals won).