This is the kind of story that makes your blood boil and warms the cockles of your heart at the same time. Most people know the historical stories of native children forcibly being removed from their home and transferred to church-run educational institutions in the 1960s. This, is a story that makes it all too real. It is the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway boy from Northwestern Ontario, as he is stripped from the comforts of home, family and culture, and thrust into a world that is not only unfamiliar, but is also unjust and inhuman.
When Richard Wagamese first introduces us to Saul, we are given a glimpse of his troubled youth and perhaps current troubled adulthood. The story that the character Saul tells, is intriguing, while the one the author narrates compels us to continue reading. Saul’s gripping journey begins as a boy, when he is abandoned on a remote lake by his parents, but reaches the land of his ultimate tragedy when his grandmother ironically tries to save him from the grips of the “Indian school” run by the Catholic Church. But as they attempt to escape the blizzard beast, we know that Indian Horse will never be the same again.
As a reader, I felt my body tighten with the turn of every page. History is revealed with such passion. On the one hand you loathe the sense of injustice that took place as a result the social and political issues of the times. On the other, you can’t help but love the history of the people who sing to the tress and the trees talk back. The book continues to unfold with our penchant for justice and equality intensifying, in the hope that Saul finds his happily ever after in one of Canada’s favourite pastimes – hockey.
“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.”
Indian Horse is a wonderful tale of the decline of a culture, and Wagamese has done a fine job of telling a bitter historical story, without in my opinion, using overt finger-pointing. It is easy to see why this is one of the Canada Reads contenders. Using a subtle imagery to depict situations such as “when they returned the brought the white man with them in brown bottles”, he makes us want to believe that the Ojibway just may flourish once again in a land that was theirs.
Richard Wagamese has a wonderful sense of storytelling – not wasting a single sentence of his book on what I like to think of as “basket words”. His prose is enjoyable, his imagery powerful, and the story spellbinding.