on January 16, 2013
As a child of northern Canada, the residential school legacy has been a constant theme in my formative and adult years. It is truly one of the blackest hours in Canadian history; one so shameful, we cannot bear to teach it in our public schools. The complete social upheaval of first nations communities has led to the destruction and near-destruction of so many lives and homes in the north, we despair of it ever being healed.
But healing is coming; in the telling of the stories, in the solidarity of shared experience and in the reclamation of language, culture and spirit. "Indian Horse" is a powerful story; it's voice echoed in the Truth and Reconciliation hearings being held across the country, as everyone who has suffered at the hands of residential schools has the opportunity to tell their own story.
The language of Richard Wagamese is spare and concise, removing any sense of sentimentality; the bits and pieces of the story either too beautiful or horrid to benefit from any embellishment. It is rich and evocative without an extra syllable to be found.
There are several themes running through the book - the wonderful spiritual connection to Saul's ancestors, the land and his own healing, the various communities that surround him at different times, the redemption and salvation found at the hockey rink and the gut-wrenching years at the school; the stories of the small, lost souls of St. Jerome's so powerful, I found myself waking in the night, thinking of them: Arden Little Light, Shane Big Canoe, Sheila Jack. This is where Wagamese has served us so well - by simply acknowledging them, seeing them and helping us to see them too. The small slivers of their stories, told in only a few sentences, gives life to their suffering and tells us all we need to know.
The writing is nearly matter-of-fact; this is what happened with never a whiff of self pity. It is wise, with moments of pure joy, despair, hope and dark evil; the healing power of the land countered by absolute cruelty and ignorance. You will hear the echo of this story long after you finish reading it.
It was an honour to read “Indian Horse” by Richard Wagamese. As a reader who wants to encourage others to go out and get this important piece of work, I am breaking the rule about reviewers getting personal with the material. As I worked my way through the staggering story of Saul Indian Horse , there was an immediate flooding of memories...his and mine. I was a 6 year old Dutch immigrant who attended a Catholic school in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. At that time, there were Aboriginal children in my class who were treated horribly by the teachers. They were always getting strapped for speaking their native language or having messy desks or whatever. It seemed to me even at such a young age, that these children were being picked on. By the time I was in grade 3, my teacher even went so far as to tell my dad, that I really shouldn’t be hanging out with Aboriginal kids. I can remember overhearing my dad and mom discussing it late at night while I was in bed. My dad was furious that this teacher had the nerve to say such a thing and he had told her so. Another memory of mine was that these kids were all in foster care with white families in our area. I didn’t get it! What was wrong with their own families? In later years, when I was well into my 40s, I ran across a small paragraph in a Canadian school history book that bluntly mentioned the governmental policy. I was shocked and started looking up information about this unbelievably abhorrent policy. Besides the residential schools , there was a policy called the “Sixties Scoop” where aboriginal children were forcibly removed from their families and placed by child welfare agencies. Who knew that this could happen in a so-called democratic society? Canadians , in general , are in the dark about this policy. They are starting to learn of the horrors of the residential schools but it is through the poignant writing of Mr. Wagamese that our eyes will be opened to the reality of the cultural devastation that has occurred to literally generations of Aboriginal families. And what about the horrors perpetrated in the name of religion. The hypocrisy of it all is enough to make one scream. How can people treat others horribly and use religion as a right to do so? My heart ached and I cried when I read the story of “Indian Horse” but the beauty of resilience and survivor’s strength is amazing. Hockey was Saul’s love and it created a place for him to escape to, not only physically but mentally as well. The description of the game is breathtaking. I think that this book should be required reading for senior elementary as well as highschool students. Every Canadian needs to be informed about what happened. History is important. We cannot change it unfortunately, but we certainly can help change the future. Says Saul..”I just want to work on the idea of what’s possible.”
Fred: “They scooped out our insides, Saul. We’re not responsible for that. We’re not responsible for what happened to us. None of us are. But our healing ..that’s up to us. That’s what saved me. Knowing it was my game.”
If you want to read a story that tells a painful truth through the character of Indian Horse, then read this book. If you want to read a story that describes a powerful hopefulness, then read this book. It is a book that all Canadians should read.
on February 8, 2013
I often find that fitting fiction into my reading time is difficult, but Saul Indian Horse is someone I know or rather a composite of many someones that I know...friends, clients, ancestors... It was originally purchased as a Christmas gift for my 14 year old grandson to help him to understand one of the ancestor paths he carries in his DNA, but I thought I'd read it before I gave it to him. Wow! I couldn't put the book down! Richard Wagamese has a well earned reputation as a story weaver, but this latest is a gem. The story is skillfully woven and narrated by someone who is himself an excellent story teller who knows the timing, language and emotional weight of every single word. If you want to delve into excellent fiction that will be as spell binding to your elders as your grandkids, here's the one to start with! I only say this because I know that Richard will likely outdo himself with his next story.
Richard Wagamese tells an authentic story through the narrative voice of Saul Indian Horse who is in a rehab centre called The New Dawn Centre, north of Winnipeg, Manitoba. Part of the program requires that the participants tell their stories, share, so that "hard core drunks like [Saul] can set [themselves] free from the bottle and the life that took [them] there. . . they put [them] in the sharing circle." Saul can't tell his story so they say it's all right if he writes it down. This book is his story.
Saul wrote about his childhood and all about the native traditions he learned from his grandmother — about the rituals, the ceremonies, the stories of family history, how he came by the name Indian Horse, and the inevitability of change coming — that is "the spirit teaching of the Horse". For Saul, the change came the winter he turned eight. He grew up with a fear of "the school". Whenever a strange boat or plane are spotted, the children go and hide in the dense wood. One day, when Saul was four, his older brother Benjamin didn't make it to the woods and was taken from them. His mother was inconsolable; his parents left the bush to follow the white man's whiskey through sawmill camps. Eventually, Benjamin returned to them, having run from the school in Kenora, sick with TB. Grandmother Naomi led the family to God's Lake, a place she remembered from long ago. It is here that Saul learns he has the gift of vision. It is here that Benjamin dies and the family abandons Saul and Naomi.
Winter came, and Naomi tried to take Saul to find the family but despite her amazing skills and "gumption", just short of their goal, Naomi dies with her arms wrapped around Saul keeping him warm on the train platform outside of town. He was discovered and taken to St. Jerome's Residential School. He was eight years old.
Saul could read and write English and so he withdrew into his own world and stayed out of trouble:
"I saw kids die of tuberculosis, influenza, pneumonia and broken hears at St. Jerome's . . . saw young boys and girls die standing on their own two feet. I saw runaways carried back, frozen solid as boards. I saw bodies hung from rafters on thin ropes. I saw wrists slashed and the cascade of blood on the bathroom floor and, one time, a young boy impaled on the tines of a pitchfork that he'd shoved through himself. . . So I retreated. That's how I survived. Alone. . . What I let them see was a quiet withdrawn boy, void of feeling."
The same year Saul arrived, a young priest named Father Gaston Leboutilier arrived. He had "a kindness and sense of adventure that drew the boys to him. He led hikes . . . took [them] camping . . . and when winter came he brought [them] hockey". Saul was hooked! He read all the books. Too young to play yet, he watched the older boys playing and found he could visualize the game, the moves, the "rhythm under all [the] mayhem". He began watching Hockey Night in Canada with a few other boys in Father Leboutilier's quarters. He became the ice sweeper, going out early in the morning to ready the ice, then practice with a hockey stick he has hidden in the snow and a "handful of the frozen horse turds" from the barn. He was a natural.
At nine, he stashed skates that were too big for him along with the stick. He used newspaper to make them fit. He set his own practice drills and worked hard. He loved everything about the game.
"The labour made me wiry and tough. It gave my lungs a workout and cleared my mind of everything but the ice. . . I floated out onto a snow-white stage in a soliloquy of grace and motion. I loved it. Every time I skated I felt as though I had created the act. It was pure and new and startling."
Finally, when Father Gaston's team was preparing for their first game against a town team from White River, Saul got his chance. A player, Wapoose, fell and broke his ankle. Saul volunteered to take his place. After that, it was town games. Then an offer to go play for a town team; but he was too good and the other parents wanted to see their own kids playing the game. The white man thought hockey was his game. Then came the chance to leave the school and play for The Moose in Manitouwadge. Fred Kelly and his wife would take him in. He'd go to school and play hockey against other reserve teams across the territory, and Saul had his freedom.
With the Moose, Saul's spirit soared. For awhile. They had huge success, were challenged to play the Senior A league champions from Kapuskasing. That led to other games against white teams. It led to a new height of racism. Saul was scouted and went to Toronto to play for the Marlboros, a Major Junior A team. That led to even greater racism — he was always the Indian, on the rampage, taking scalps — even in the papers. He was finally forced to fight and it ruined the game for him. He gave up hockey and everything was downhill after that, until he landed in the New Dawn Centre.
This was an incredible story. The descriptions of the game were beautiful — fast-paced, vivid, so real that you don't have to be a hockey fan to follow the play and get what an amazing player Saul was. From his first time in a game:
"I stayed at the edge of the scrimmage, the play rolling its pattern out in front of me. Then, suddenly, I saw it clearly. I saw the direction of the ame before it happened and I moved to that spot. Now I bent to my skating, spreading my feet a little wider and keeping the full length of my stick blade on the ice. . .
I pushed hard, evenly, and I was at full speed in three strides. I scooped the puck onto my stick and cradled it as I pumped with my other arm. The goalie yelped and backed slowly toward the mouth of the net. I whisked across the blue line and there was only me, the puck and the net. I was flying, skating as fast as I could go, and then time slowed to a crawl. I could hear my breath, the yells of the other boys behind me, feel the pump of blood in my chest, see the eyes of the goalie squinting in concentration."
When the story came full circle, it took me totally by surprise. Maybe it shouldn't have. When I thought back, the clues were all there, but I think, maybe, I just didn't want to believe it. The parts of the story from St. Jerome's were horrific. Some of the racist acts, equally so. The spirit in Saul that enabled him to play the game so well, let you float with him in its freedom. And, despite the downside of the story, the brutal truths about the residential schools and the running of them (in this story a Catholic school but it could equally have been any denomination of protestant school as well, and certainly, the Canadian government has recognized its own culpability in this policy), and racism that still is a problem today, there is redemption for Saul and a new life when the story ends. I couldn't put the book down!