This is a beautiful, heart-breaking, and ultimately redemptive novel about an Ojibway (Anishnabeg) man’s journey from childhood in the bush to his undoing in residential school, experiences in the Native hockey league and in an NHL farm team, his subsequent alcoholism and recovery.
It is a narrative as familiar as the Cultural Revolution stories among Chinese writers or holocaust stories among Jewish writers, ie an individual exploration of a collective trauma. They are all important, even if not all equally literary. This one is so skilled and honest. I want to say brilliant because it shines: Wagamese’s narrative is one I couldn’t put down.
I read Wagamese’s blog, and have always been taken with the strength of his writing as well as the truths expressed by it, which is why I picked up Indian Horse when I was recently at Book City with my children. I wasn’t disappointed. The writing was so strong and beautiful, I hated to put it down, which I had to, say, in order to sleep and have a family dinner in my honour (birthday). Yesterday I spent two hours in the tub (my favourite spot for reading) until I finished it.
I loved the sections about hockey, not only because I skate and one of my kids plays hockey, but because I could identify as a writer with the joy of a passion tainted by outside forces and then recovered in its purity. I also related (unfortunately) to the journey to overcome the legacy of abuse, not only of the body, but the relentless pursuit of the spirit. But as a writer, I also admired and was impressed by the economy and beauty of the writing, which brought me to tears.
The shameful treatment by Europeans of First Nations in Canada is spoken about and examined far, far less than that of African-Americans in the U.S. And yet my own city, the largest in Canada, for example, was acquired through deceit as a “purchase” from the Mississauga people. The deed, which they signed under a misapprehension of the terms, was blank. There are centuries of dislocation to account for, first due to disease, subsequently due to being pushed back and back to smaller, more remote and more barren areas of land. There is the devastation of the residential schools, generations of children being torn from their families by white authorities and forced into residential schools where their language and customs were outlawed, where abuse was rampant, and even basic accommodations like adequate food and health care lacking. Then there was the 1960s scoop, where Native babies were scooped up without informed, if any, consent in large numbers for adoption by families hardly prepared or able to nurture their resilience or pride. Add to that systematic poverty and racism, and the prevalence of alcoholism is hardly surprising. Mortality and disease rates are higher, life expectancy lower. To this day many reservations lack clean water and adequate housing, not to mention access to health care and education.
I don’t know why this isn’t more in the forefront of our national consciousness. Indian Horse is a terrific novel, on any account, but it also addresses an important subject. And to me this is one of the primary purposes of fiction. It is a quick read at only 220 pages. Make it one you pick up before the end of the summer.
A tiny taste from the opening page:
My people are from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway, the Anishnabeg, we call ourselves. We made our home in the territories along the Winnipeg River, where the river opens wide before crossing into Manitoba after it leaves Lake of the Woods and the rugged spine of northern Ontario. They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland…Our talk rolls and tumbles like the rivers that served as our roads. Our legends tell of how we emerged from the womb of our Mother the Earth; Aki is the name we have for her. We sprang forth intact, with Aki’s heartbeat thrumming in our ears, prepared to become her stewards and protectors.