Once & Future

Charlotte Ashley – Book seller, collector, writer, editor, historian

December 28, 2012

Canada Reads 2013 Review #1 – Indian Horse

If you, like me, are horribly, inexcusably ignorant of Canadian Indigenous history, you will probably want to read Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse with Wikipedia open next to you.

Perhaps you don’t; perhaps Wagamese’s beautifully crafted sentences and compelling story alone will suffice for you. Perhaps you will read for the fire and excitement of the sport – hockey – that is the focus of most of the book’s narrative. Perhaps you will just read to know what happens to Saul Indian Horse, the book’s very likeable protagonist. Perhaps you won’t find your mind racing away with the issues and implications of what he has written. Perhaps you are that very focused person.

I am not that focused person. I got as far as page 8 before my jaw hit the floor and I scrambled for my iPhone. I thought I knew my history. How did I not know children were being kidnapped at gunpoint by representatives of the residential school system as recently as 1961? But wait – it continued after that? The Residential schools were still run by the churches until 1969? The last school didn’t close until nineteen-ninety-six?

Was I asleep during the reports from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission? Apparently so; but I, like so many other people, get most of my history from novels, for better or for worse. Historical fiction has a lot of detractors in literary circles, people who feel that fancy costumes, dates and out-of-scale events deter from the human heart of good writing. I think this is 100% pure crap. A story is a story, and stories have characters and there is nothing less human about Wolf Hall‘s Thomas Cromwell than Things Fall Apart‘s Okonkwo. I wasn’t there for either of their lives: thats why I read the bloody book. But I digress.

Richard Wagamese is telling the very human story of a boy heavily, heavily damaged by Canada’s horrifying colonial history who finds some peace through his incredible gift as a hockey player. The stark contrast between his off-rink and on-rink life is beautifully illustrative of the power of talent or sport to provide an escape from the most awful circumstances. But it was difficult for me to share Saul’s love of the game because, though evocatively, powerfully written, as soon as a white person showed up, he would ruin everything.

The short period of peace in the book takes place during the time Saul plays with an Indian hockey team against other Indian hockey teams. It’s a beautiful thing to read, the camaraderie and hope borne of these games. As word of Saul’s talent gets out, his team – The Moose – starts to play games and tournaments against white teams, and from there everything goes to hell. It is very hard for a person like me not to have a political reaction to a narrative like this. The history is so recent, and the setting so familiar. Canada continues to deal out racism, oppression and vast injustice to its Indigenous peoples. Read the news lately? Exactly. I could not be a passive reader of this book.

Horrified though the book left me, I think this book’s ability to evoke a reaction like this in me – and, I hope, thousands more Canada Reads readers – is a very good thing. I hope it provokes us all to bone up on our history, current political movements, and provokes some action. I doubt that was Wagamese’s intention when he wrote Indian Horse, but frankly there are few enough books being written about Canada’s Indigenous history that even the even-handed, polite and non-accusing narratives like this one should shock and incite the reader.

The book is not perfect. Wagamese makes use of one of my pet peeves, the Character Saved By Books trope. I know, books can protect and save anybody, but surely, once in a while, an illiterate person can be the hero of their own story? Must every sympathetic protagonist be bookish?

I also found Saul’s descent into alcoholism abrupt. He doesn’t take his first drink until page 180 of a 220 page book. Saul’s life between the ages of 15-18 takes most of the book, time spent exploring and understanding the world through Saul’s eyes with beautiful, careful prose and acute observations. The years between 18-25 seem to float away in one three page chapter, and the next thing we know he’s in his thirties, an alcoholic, and writing a book. I got the feeling Wagamese knew where he wanted to go with the ending but didn’t know how to get there, so he just left the time in between off the page. I would have been happier with a book longer by fifty pages, better understanding Saul’s post-hockey existence. It might have brought his return to hockey at the end a little more gravitas.

Still, I think this book will be a fierce competitor for the Canada Reads title! I certainly feel it should be a must-read for Canadians. If there are any educators out there reading this, get Indian Horse on your syllabi. It’s a beautiful, readable book students will adore and the history is so, so important. Don’t wait for it to win or not win Canada Reads. This book should be out there either way.

5 thoughts on “Canada Reads 2013 Review #1 – Indian Horse”

  1. Getting your history from novels can be tricky. History books are for facts; novels can fudge the facts for the sake of a good story. Indian Horse sounds like a winner. Hope to see a lot more books by indigenous writers.

    1. Charlotte says:

      Yes, history in novels is touch and go, but that’s what I use Wikipedia for – a little corroboration. 😉 But without the novel, I’d never have known what to look up!

  2. Ruth Seeley says:

    I’ve just finished sobbing through the last 50 pages of Indian Horse – haven’t reacted this strongly to a book since 2nd year university when I finished Tess of the d’Urbervilles in second year at 3AM and couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night. The telescoping of Saul’s lost alcoholic years didn’t bother me, nor did the ‘saved by the book’ trope. As for the ‘history through books’ debate – I can tell you I’ve watched a documentary on the Rwandan genocide, read Romeo D’allaire’s Shake Hands with the Devil, seen another film on the subject, and the best explanation for what happened and why was provided by a 26-page short story from the collection Say You’re One of Them (in fact, it may be the title story). I’ve always claimed fiction is about emotional truth. Facts are easy to find and easy to stack in piles. It’s what you do with the facts that matters. Whether a young girl ever committed suicide at a residential school by stabbing herself with a knife after her sister was killed by the institution’s brutality really doesn’t matter. What matters is the depth of pain and hopelessness that is conveyed by the ‘action.’

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