- Indian Horse: A Novel by Richard Wagamese
RICHARD WAGAMESE'S Indian Horse is a brilliantly layered and moving novel that tells a story about the healing power of hockey. We need to understand hockey the way our protagonist, Saul Indian Horse, understands it, though. Saul is a seer, a gift he inherited from his great-grandfather, a skill that his beloved Ojibway grandma recognizes in the boy. Hockey, as Saul lives it in the first half of the book, is not a sport; instead, it is an embodiment of the same sort of life force that moves through the universe. It is the creative energy of controlled chaos; bodies speeding over the ice are meteorites burning through the sky; the puck squirting out from a scrum of players spins "like a small planet in a universe of white" (69); body pounding into body are stars exploding in space; and time only stops "when the puck is in the net" (149). Like all things in the universe, time does not really stop, though. It is ceremonially restarted with the face-off when the creative power of chaos is once again unloosed.
Saul sees through the chaos on the ice, sees the energy of the bodies in motion in ways that allow him to anticipate where the puck or a teammate will be and how to best get the puck in the net. A scout for the pros tells Saul that the great players "can harness that lightning. They're the conjurers. They become one with the game and it lifts them up and out of their lives too." The scout then asks, "That's what happens to you, isn't it?" (150).
The game lifts Saul out of his life at a Canadian residential school in the mid-twentieth century. He rises from grooming the ice to skating with the older boys under the tutelage of the humorous and kind Father Leboutilier. While the villain of the book, the school is not Saul's foundational experience of life; rather, the life he lived in the bush under the care of his grandmother before he is removed to the school sets his foundation. Saul is grounded in the Ojibway way of seeing, which informs his knowledge of the game. As his talent lifts him toward the pros, though, the game stops lifting him and instead becomes a site where the cutting racism of the Zhaunagush (the English/whites) drives Saul to become the stereotype the Zhaunagush want. The game stops being about creative energy, and Saul quits, turning down the destructive path of alcohol abuse.
From the first pages of the book we know we are reading the words Saul [End Page 212] is writing while in rehab. We know, in other words, that Saul is working on getting back to that good way of living his grandmother taught him about, the way that lives in knowledge of that chaotic energy that is the creative force of the living universe, that lives in knowledge of the world the ancestors lived in and made for him. He recalls the story of his great-grandfather Shabogeesick, bringing the first horse to their community—the horse from which his family got their name, Indian Horse. Shabogeesick tells his community that many changes are coming with the Zhaunagush, "ways of thinking that will crash like thunder in our hearts and minds. But we must," he counsels, "learn to ride each of these horses of change" (7). Implicit in Shabogeesick's words is that we must learn to ride them in light of Ojibway teachings, not those of the Zhaunagush. Saul's narrative of his life arcs toward this realization, toward recovery of those teachings and healing from the losses in his personal life and the traumas endured at the residential school—and on the ice.
Before I was even halfway through Indian Horse I knew I'd be teaching it in my Native literature class this coming year (and likely for many years to come). In a powerful series of images, visions, and epiphanies, Wagamese draws the many strands of this...