by Richard Wagamese
Indian Horse follows Saul Indian Horse as his life takes him from a northern Ojibway reserve through the world of the the White Man and all the abuse and racism it forces him to endure. After a hopeless life in a residential school, he gets a taste of joy and salvation in hockey, and most of the story encompasses his struggle to keep it alive as games get more cutthroat and uncaring.
While hockey features a prominent role in Indian Horse, I think I can still appreciate it because, at its heart, it’s less a story about hockey and more a story about the Native way of life and how the white world irrevocably changed it for the worse. The games on the reserves were in poor conditions, with uneven ice on the outdoor rinks, ice affected by the wind, the weather, the world around it. There, people were playing the game to play the game; there was camaraderie between the winners and losers. Contrast that to the artificial environment in the arenas in each white town, where people are playing to win. The deeper Saul finds himself in these arena games, it’s not only the racist taunts that get worse, but he keeps getting pushed harder to play meaner, only to win, to lose what makes him love the game. The whites push the spirit from the game; the whites push the spirit from his life.
And this story is presented with great subtlety from a confident author. He understands that readers can better connect with characters when just watching them react, rather than listening to them explain the importance of things that happen. He understands that we have the clearest memories of the things that leave the greatest impression on us. He knows exactly how much to give us to leave us alone with our emotions and let them do the talking.
I both love and hate reading a book like Indian Horse, one that so often has me on the verge of tears. Of course, consistently triggering strong emotions is often a sign of a good book, as it is in this instance. However, this one filled me with anger, anger at the terrible things people feel content to do to others out of fear, out of hate, and without care or a second consideration. Anger doesn’t feel good, but to feel is human, and the best artists, Wagamese included, remind us of who we are. Read this one.