Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (5/5)

This is it – the last book and with 24 hours to spare before the Canada Reads debates begin.  I’ve also decided which book to root for.  The newest book on the list by, possibly, the least known of the authors is Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese and it is my choice for Canada Reads 2013.  As the first time through CR I enjoyed the process and the journey but I enjoyed some books more than others.  The reason I support Indian Horse for the win is that this was the only book I would recommend to friends outside of Canada and to Canadian friends who aren’t in to stodgy, flowery, theme-heavy CanLit for the sake of it.

Somehow Indian Horse manages to be about hockey, white-aboriginal relations and to be set in northern Ontario but still accessible to anyone.  The author addresses some very dark corners of Canada’s recent past.

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Saul Indian Horse introduces himself to the reader while he is at a very low point in his life – he is in an addictions treatment facility and has been asked to tell his story as a form of healing.  In his own words he takes us through his early childhood with his parents and grandmother to his time in St. Jerome’s, a residential school in Northern Ontario, where he is introduced to hockey and teaches himself to play as an escape from the spirit-breaking clergy that run the school.  When it is clear that he has some real talent he begins to play for the Manitowadge Moose traveling team first playing other Reserve teams and then being pitted against white teams.

Wagamese sets our protagonist up as a very thinly veiled Indian Wayne Gretzky:  Indian Horse is much smaller than other plays; he prefers to walk away than to fight, not to engage; he is a very fast skater; Indian Horse has “the vision” often prescribed to Gretzky that allows them to read the ice and know where players will be when seeming to make completely blind passes.  Essentially, we are given an alternate reality where these almost supernatural hockey skills are found not in a member of privileged white society of the 1970s and ’80s but in a First Nations boy in a residential school around the same time – perhaps one of the least enfranchised groups ever in Canada.  Will Indian Horse be able to keep the joy he gets from the game as he is subject to racism, stereotyping, the pressure of living out the dreams of others and haunting memories that surface from his time in St. Jerome’s?  Would the outcome have been the same – would we still have Canada’s sports icon?

Warning:  this isn’t an easy book to read.  Indian Horse’s life was not an easy one.  Yes, it is a novel but do not think that any of the events in the story were entire fabrications.  All of these things could have (likely have) happened.


1.  “They took me to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School.  I read once that there are holes in the universe that swallow all light, all bodies.  St. Jerome’s took all the light from my world.  Everything I knew vanished behind me with an audible swish, like the sound a moose makes disappearing into the spruce.”

2.  ” ‘This ice is crap,’ I complained to Virgil. ‘On outdoor ice you really gotta know how to skate.’

‘It’s arena ice,’ he said. ‘Same everywhere.’

‘That’s what I mean.  The ice in Heron Bay was rough where the wind cut through the black spruce and made ripples and ridges.  It was uneven in Ginoogaming because the ground slanted up from one end.  We had to know that.  Had to use it in our game.’

‘This makes it easier.’

‘Easier ain’t better.  It’s just easier.’

3.  “I was a whirlwind in those first games, and nobody could miss that.  But the press would not let me be.  When I hit someone, it wasn’t just a body check; I was counting coup.  When I made a dash down the ice and brought the crowd to their feet, I was on a raid.  If I inadvertently high-sticked someone during a tussle in the corner, I was taking scalps.  When I did not react to getting a penalty, I was the stoic Indian…This explosively fast, ordered game I was learning to play had set me on fire. I wanted to rise to new heights, be one of the glittering few.  But they would’t let me be just a hockey player.  I always had to be the Indian.”

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