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9.01.2014

what i'm reading: indian horse by richard wagamese, a must-read, especially for canadians

Indian Horse, by Richard Wagamese, is a hauntingly beautiful novel about an Ojibway boy's journey into manhood. It was the Readers' Choice winner of the 2013 Canada Reads, CBC Radio's book promotion program. But if you're like me and don't listen to the radio, you may have missed it. Don't miss it. Indian Horse should be widely read - by everyone, but especially by Canadians.

In a slim, spare volume, drawing vivid pictures with very few words, Wagamese brings you into the Ojibway family. They are struggling to hold onto their culture - and indeed, to keep their family physically together, as children are being abducted and forced into the so-called residential schools.

Saul Indian Horse, the hero and narrator of the novel, survives the residential school by finding solace and joy in an unlikely place: hockey. Hockey is an integral part of Indian Horse, and Wagamese has written some of the best description of sport I've read in a novel, seamlessly knitting the poetry of game into the narrative.

It's that seamlessness that makes Indian Horse so special. As the reader journeys through the different times of Saul's life - his original family, the residential school, the rink, a Native hockey team, anti-Native bigotry, and so on - the writing is never didactic, the information is never grafted on. We are always in the flow of the story, reading more with our hearts than our minds.

For non-Canadian wmtc readers, residential schools are a euphemism for the government and church-administered programs that attempted the forced assimilation of Native children. These "schools" are more properly thought of as forced labour and indoctrination camps. They were places of horrific cruelty and abuse. For many Canadians, they have become a symbol of a shameful past that continues to echo into the present. But when something becomes symbolic, in can lose its specific reality. Wagamese brings us into the reality as it was lived.

If you're someone who cringes at the idea of reading about the cruelty to children, I encourage you to read Indian Horse all the more. What you know of residential schools is likely gleaned from news reports, perhaps when the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was holding hearings. I strongly encourage you to read a First Nations writer's account. It's stark and honest, without being graphic or sensationalist. It's an important exercise in empathy, in bearing witness. It's an important piece of history.

But I assure you, reading Indian Horse does not feel like reading important history. It's one boy's journey, and it will move you.

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