Thursday, November 21, 2013

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse

Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows.

With compassion and insight, author Richard Wagamese traces through his fictional characters the decline of a culture and a cultural way. For Saul, taken forcibly from the land and his family when he’s sent to residential school, salvation comes for a while through his incredible gifts as a hockey player. But in the harsh realities of 1960s Canada, he battles obdurate racism and the spirit-destroying effects of cultural alienation and displacement.

Indian Horse unfolds against the bleak loveliness of northern Ontario, all rock, marsh, bog and cedar. Wagamese writes with a spare beauty, penetrating the heart of a remarkable Ojibway man. Drawing on his great-grandfather’s mystical gift of vision, Saul Indian Horse comes to recognize the influence of everyday magic on his own life. 

This book sat on my coffee table for quite a few weeks before I actually picked it up and read it. When I did start reading it, the opening chapters didn't really grab me and I expected Indian Horse to be a chore to read.

I have read articles and seen news programs and possibly even a full documentary on residential schools and what life was like from the personal experiences of those who attended. Aware of the tragedy, of the sadness and of the shame of collective Canadian society regarding these schools I was not looking forward to a book that would recount such experiences.

While subject matter in no way made this a happy book, I did enjoy reading it in an evening. I like the setup of the book with the short chapters and the flow of time in the storytelling. With the exception of the opening chapters describing Saul's parents and extended family I felt that the characters were well developed and I was able to make connections with them while reading.   Perhaps the feeling I got from the description of Saul's parents was actually more poignant because he was so young at that time that his recollections would not necessarily have allowed for a deeper description of them.  After the point of the story where Saul was taken to the residential school I found the book moved quickly and evenly.  I really enjoyed the descriptions of Saul playing hockey particularly when he first learned about hockey and was learning the game and discovering what it could mean for him. The way he had to fight for the chance to play, the  solitary work he did in order  to develop his skills and the opposition he faced in the arenas and on the ice summed up the story for me.  It was a perfect metaphor to demonstrate his life.

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