Indian Horse packs a wallop

Indian Horse
By Richard Wagamese
(D & M Publishers, 221 pages, $21.95 trade paperback)

By J. F. (Jim) Foulds
If you've been looking for the Great Northwestern Ontario novel, look no further than Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse. Better than any government report, any investigative journalism, it powerfully portrays the tragically destructive impact of residential schools. But Indian Horse is also a work of great creativity which affirms the human spirit. Saul Indian Horse, the protagonist, finds the strength to overcome cruelty, betrayal and addiction.
The Indian residential school system is a blot on Canadian history. Aboriginal children were systematically kidnapped and deposited in institutions that tried to break their spirits and destroy their identities. How could we have let that happen? How was the lid kept on the deaths of the children who died in care? Where were the protections everyone has a right to expect in a civilized society? The perpetrators must have had the tacit approval and consent of a lot of Pontius Pilates in our governments, our churches and amongst our citizenry.
Like Dickens, Wagamese lays bare injustices and attitudes that desperately need changing. This is a tough novel in the best sense. But preachy, too heavy, too harrowing, or too much of a downer it definitely is not.
Over the years, I have gained some understanding of residential schools, intellectually. However, until I read Indian Horse I simply had no concept of the emotional damage the system caused, not only to individuals but to the fabric of the whole vibrant aboriginal culture and society. After finishing the novel, I simply couldn’t bear to talk to anyone for over an hour. Every mining executive, politician and citizen interested in the North, its land and its people should read it. Reading Indian Horse is a genuinely life-changing experience.
Wagamese skillfully uses the extended metaphors of the Northwestern Ontario bush and Canada’s game of hockey to make Saul Indian Horse’s residential school experience bearable. They are also the tools Saul himself uses to gain his enlightenment, his liberation, and finally, peace.
For those who love hockey (and even if you don’t) the passages about the game on northern outdoor rinks in the 1960s are magical. So are the descriptions of life in the Northwestern Ontario bush. Those of the mining and mill towns are acutely realistic.
Wagamese is a first-rate storyteller. He adopts exactly the right tone for each scene. While Saul is a “Bush Indian” with his original family, the pace and rhythm of the writing is different from that while he’s in the residential school. The scenes on the road with the Manitouwadge Moose hockey team, playing with the Toronto Marlies, drying out in the New Age Treatment Centre, and when he rejoins his adopted family are filled with acute observation and insight.
I may have read a few better novels in my life, but I haven’t read one that has had more of an emotional impact — a true cathartic punch. Although Indian Horse wasn’t the final winner in the recent Canada Reads 2013 Turf Wars, it did win the People’s Choice award. So, it sure was a hell of a contender — like Saul Indian Horse himself.

(J. F. (Jim) Foulds is a retired teacher and politician. He is a member of the Thunder Bay Writers Guild and a founding member of the Northwestern Ontario Writers Workshop.)