The narrator of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is Saul Indian Horse of the Ojibway Nation in Canada. The novel opens with Saul as a recovering alcoholic and resident at The New Dawn Center, a treatment center for alcohol addiction. Saul is invited to recount his story. And so begins the harrowing tale of Saul’s childhood, adulthood, and gradual decline into alcoholism.
Having lost his all family, a terrified eight-year-old Saul is captured and taken to St. Jerome’s Indian Residential School, a place he describes as “hell on earth” where all manner of sexual and physical abuse occurs. The nuns and priests routinely beat the children; expose them to inhumane treatment; humiliate them; try to instill in them shame at their skin color, culture, and belief systems; and mete out severe punishment if they hear the children speaking in their native tongues. In short, they unite in a concerted effort to eradicate the Indian out of the Indian through the use of corporal punishment, starvation, torture, and fear. And this is all done in the name of Christianity.
In addition to these horrors, the children are routinely subjected to night time sexual assaults by nuns and priests who either get into bed with a child or remove the child to another room to perpetrate atrocities. Life is so horrendous for these young children that many of them die and/or commit suicide. They are buried in unmarked graves, their deaths shrouded in silence as if they never existed.
The young Saul is eventually befriended by Father Leboutilier at the school. Leboutilier ignites Saul’s interest in ice hockey. Saul practices furiously and passionately, developing speed and dexterity that attract the attention of scouts. Saul leaves the school to play hockey with a native team and then is invited to play in a higher league with all white team mates. Subject to racist taunts by teams and audiences alike, Saul experiences racism in all its virulent forms. He tries to navigate a place for himself within the game, but when his attempts are rebuffed with racial slurs and physical attacks, he retaliates with violence and is ejected from the game. He then drifts from one odd job to the next, gradually declining into alcoholism until he enters The New Dawn Center.
It is while he recounts his story that Saul is finally able to articulate his experience of child sexual assault at St. Jerome’s School. This revelation comes as a shock to the reader since Saul gives no prior indication of being a victim of child sexual assault. He comes to realize that his love and dedication for hockey was really a coping mechanism, a desperate means to escape the horror, guilt, and shame of his sexual abuse. The novel concludes with a hopeful note as Saul is finally able to confront his past and tell his story as a survivor.
Richard Wagamese has written a compelling novel that penetrates into the heart of the cultural alienation, displacement, and implacable racism experienced by the indigenous people of Canada. Wagamese’s prose is lucid, unadulterated, and sparse when describing horrors and cruelties; it is lyrical and profound when describing the affinity with nature, belief systems, rituals, and spirituality of the Ojibway people as recounted by Saul’s grandmother; and it is thrilling when capturing the exhilaration and freedom Saul experiences on the ice with his breathtaking skill. Saul emerges as a believable, memorable character, struggling to come to terms with his traumatic past. He is portrayed with a sympathy and compassion that is magnified by the knowledge that real First Nations children experienced similar trauma.
Richard Wagamese has written a stunning novel exposing the horrors of Canada’s church run residential schools while combining it with the story of a young man’s struggle with alienation and trauma as he slowly navigates toward community and self-acceptance.
Highly recommended in spite of—or because of—its difficult subject matter.