1960’s Canada may conjure images of long haired hippies chanting peace, love, and happiness, but for an Ojibway boy attending a residential school, this era evokes very different memories. In his latest novel, Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese takes us on one man’s journey through one of the most tragic episodes in Canadian history. It is a story about resilience and reconciliation from a lifetime of loss. It is a story about the one thing that can lead to healing: the truth.
After losing every member of his family, Saul is taken to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School. There he is stripped of his innocence, his traditions and his identity. He is catapulted into a world of extreme emotional and physical abuse brought on by the hands of the nuns and priests that are assimilating the children from “savagery”. In order to cope with the suicides, beatings, and sexual molestations, Saul finds his only solace in hockey. He soon discovers he has a natural talent to play the game which excels far beyond his peers.
It is through hockey that Saul can escape his reality and find what was stolen from him: friendships; family; and a sense of self. Although his future seems to point towards contending for a position within the National Hockey League, the constant racism and shunning from “the white man’s game” crumbles his faith in the one thing that gave him a life outside of the residential school. On a journey that leads you through triumph, failure, and extreme loss, Wagamese is able to transcend the incredible torment that ultimately destroys Saul and leads him down a path to facing the truth.
This story is raw and authentic. You can feel the internal struggle of the main character. With every sentence and with every chapter, you experience the angst and the incredible will of a boy who has had to endure more than anyone should in a lifetime. You feel a connection with Saul, an empathy so deep that you will find yourself outraged, uplifted, or disheartened every time you turn a page. Indian Horse is one of those rare pieces of literature that will take you from tingling with goosebumps to shedding a tear (or two, in my case).
Indian Horse is an education. The lessons that can be taken away from this novel are more than just about the horrible atrocities that the First Nations endured, but rather about the beauty of their traditions that create unbreakable connections to the earth. It is these connections that speak to Saul and help heal his emotional scars that he hid for so long. Wagamese relays that staying true to your roots is what will get you through life’s obstacles, despite temptations and addictions which may veer you from finding your true self. This novel illustrates that hockey is not merely a sport, but has the capacity to bind us together. No matter what colour your skin or where you come from, it’s the love of a game that shows us that we are really not that different after all.