100-MILE BOOK CLUB: Wagamese pens winner with Indian Horse

Penticton book reviewer examines Richard Wagamese's latest, Indian Horse.

I may be pushing the boundaries of this column but Kamloops, home of one of Canada’s most celebrated Aboriginal authors, is scarcely more than 100 miles away as the crow flies.

Richard Wagamese has penned several books including his memoir One Native Life, which was one of The Globe and Mail’s 100 Best Books of 2008, and One Story, One Song which was awarded the George Ryga Award for social awareness in 2011. His latest book is called Indian Horse.

Saul Indian Horse is a young Ojibway boy who is apprehended and taken to a Catholic residential school in the 1960s. There he suffers neglect and abuse. It seems as though Saul will end up in an unmarked grave, like so many of the other students. Saul is seemingly rescued from this fate by the appearance of a new priest at the school who has a passion for hockey.

Saul is an immediate star of the game — he has a unique ability to see the ice and unsurpassed speed. He practices on an outdoor rink in oversized, second-hand equipment, using a horse turd as a puck. Once his talent is recognized, he is able to leave the school to play on a Aboriginal  hockey team in northern Ontario.

Saul’s prowess brings several invitations to play on off-reservation teams, and eventually to try out for the Toronto Maple Leafs. Each foray off the reserve begets a series of taunts, ridicule and outright beatings for daring to play “the white man’s game.” It’s not the hockey story we are used to hearing.

Wagamese first intended Indian Horse to be a novella about an Ojibway hockey player, but stories from residential school survivors made their way onto the pages. Wagamese’s portrayal of the suffering of the parents whose children were stolen and of the children themselves is incredibly moving. Even if you think you know what happened to generations of Aboriginal people, this book will make you sit up and reconsider the tragedy.

When writing a column, I sometimes make connections to holidays, literary awards or current events. This time, unfortunately, the connection is personal. Just as I sat down to write, I received a phone call about a cousin, a young First Nations man, who had taken his own life.

This death mirrors the tragedy Wagamese portrays through story. It’s not one thing but many things that bring a person down, and sometimes people are made to suffer so much that it takes generations of work to heal. We still, it seems, have much to do.

Heather Allen is a reader and writer living in Penticton.