July 5, 2013

Indian Horse - Richard Wagamese

This is a book that I have wanted to read for quite some time.  I have heard the author interviewed on CBC radio at several points, and then this was one of the selections for the Canada Reads debates this year.  Though why it was the British Columbia book is beyond me - this book is set, heart and soul, in north-western Ontario.

And that is why I finally picked up a copy.  I am almost finished an 8-month stay in the beautiful town of Kenora, before moving back to Thunder Bay in mid-August.  Richard Wagamese is definitely considered a "local boy" around here, even though he currently lives out in BC.  He is Ojibwe, from Wabaseemoong First Nation (known in English as Whitedog First Nation), a beautiful hour-and-a-half drive north of Kenora.  Since I work in home care and the territory that I cover includes Kenora, west to the Manitoba border, north to Wabaseemoong and Grassy Narrows, and south to Whitefish Bay, I have become very familiar with the land where much of this book is set.  The main character, Saul Indian Horse is from Wabaseemoong (though it is never mentioned by name - it just talks about a community north of Minaki on the shores of the Winnipeg river), and there are frequent mentions of other communities in this area - Kenora, Minaki, Redditt - as well as communities further east - White River where Saul is sent to school, and Manitouwadge where he eventually settles.  As I said, a book firmly set in north-western Ontario!

I was hooked right from the opening paragraph.  As I was picking up this book to begin, I thought to myself that I didn't know anyone from Whitedog with the last name of Indian Horse - if I were writing a book with a character from Whitdog, I would have given him/her the last name of Muckle or Mandamin.  And there in the opening sentences, "My name is Saul Indian Horse.  I am the son of Mary Mandamin and John Indian horse."  I may have laughed out loud at this point, but I was hooked...

Anyways, on to the story.  The premise will be familiar to anyone who is aware of First Nations / settler history over the past few centuries.  Saul is born in the bush.  His family is divided by traditional beliefs and the Christianity imposed by the European settlers through the residential school system.  His grandmother tries her best to keep him from being taken away from his family and sent to residential school, but in the end, she is not successful.  The full extent of the abuse that Saul suffers at school aren't revealed until close to the very end of the book, and the way in which the abuse unfolds is disturbing.  One thing that did come from his residential school experience is a love and talent for ice hockey, and eventually he has a chance at making a career of it; but due to systemic racism (which is, unfortunately, still very much present today though perhaps less overtly), he ends up leaving hockey behind and deals with his demons in his own way.

This book felt very personal to me, possibly because the stories ring so true.  Through my work, I have been hearing stories from clients about residential schools - the good, the bad, and the ugly if I may borrow a cliche.  I have heard stories about life in Wabaseemoong before the road was built, before the hydroelectric dam flooded much of the land, and before 3 independent communities were forced to co-exist.  I have heard stories of abuse and alcoholism and racism.  And this book does not shy away from any of these stories.  (Just to clarify - I am a physiotherapist, but there is often a lot of conversation and story-telling that goes on during my physiotherapy sessions!)

Despite the decision of the Canada Reads panelists, I do think that this is a book that every Canadian should read.  It is fiction, but it is a fair representation of our Canadian history over the past century that has too-often been hidden away and denied.  And since so many of the issues continue to resonate today, the more that they can be brought out into the open, the better.  Thank you, Richard Wagamese, for sharing this story with the world.

No comments: