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2012 Review: Indian Horse

Indian Horse
By Richard Wagamese
Douglas & McIntyre
186 pages, $23.00

Award-winning author Richard Wagamese weaves an emotional and endearing story together in his latest novel Indian Horse that confronts the legacy of residential school in a young boy’s life and how the game of hockey serves as a way of coping.

Saul Indian Horse’s young life is marked by tragedy. His parents are residential school survivors, and his mother is so devastated by the experience that she turns so far inward that “she ceases to exist in the outside world.”

Saul’s parents lose their oldest daughter to the residential school. To prevent Saul and his younger brother Benjamin from being taken, they bring the boys into the bush to live off the land with an uncle and Saul’s grandmother.

The family manages to escape the authorities for a while, but Benjamin is eventually snatched by the government officials and placed in a school in Kenora. Benjamin escapes from the residential school a few years later, and returns to his family in the bush, only to die soon after from the tuberculosis he contracted while in the school.
Saul Indian Horse’s life is altered forever when his parents turn to alcohol and leave him with his grandma in the bush to take off for Northern Ontario’s mining and mill towns.

Life in the bush is soon abandoned when Saul’s grandmother decides to make a trip to the town of Minak where her brother Minoose lives. She says “We can stay with him through the winter if we have to,” and she tells Saul that if they stay in the bush it will be where they will die.

Saul and his grandmother make the trek to Minaki, but during the final leg of their journey, the grandmother grows tired. She takes Saul in her arms and says, “We’ll rest a minute.”

The reader’s heart goes out to Saul when, while huddled in the arms of his grandmother, he feels her grow cold and her spirit leave. It is while he is lying in the arms of his deceased grandmother that he is found and taken to the place he has worked so hard to avoid.

Indian Horse is a moving novel that takes readers inside residential school, and provides details of the abuses that went on there, but also talks about the hope that springs from the game of ice hockey, and how one priest takes Saul under his wing.

The reader sees how the game of hockey comes naturally to this young boy, and readers witness Saul’s brutal journey through the racist ranks of minor-league hockey into an alcohol-ravaged adulthood to a place of personal endurance and recovery.

Wagamese is once again at his finest. He takes his readers on an emotional journey; a journey that exposes the horrors of Canada’s residential schools, but also celebrates the triumphs of a young boy and his love for the game of hockey.