In Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese covers important aspects of life as an indigenous person around the 60s. Especially, residential schools in Canada, both their destructive assimilation and abuse. This novel, though short, covers a lot of key topics over the protagonist Saul’s life. We move from situation to situation, but in the end each step of the way culminates somewhat tragically, though cathartically at the end. There’s also a lot of hockey, but if you’re not a fan of it, don’t worry, it isn’t the primary focus, and it’s handled very interestingly.
I’m not really going to cover the story in this review, I’m sure others, perhaps on their website or on Goodreads, have already done so better. As far as narrative content, I would say this breaches into amazing. As stated above, the novel covers important topics including residential schools, but also racism, alcoholism, loss of culture and family, hockey, and a really strong, hopeful ending. (Trying to be spoiler free.)
Narrative structure and approach is also quite good. The story’s flow is rapid and clean, but at the same time it feels like we leave a situation or setting just as we get used to it—apart from hockey. Consider his childhood saga. The fact that no other child is named at the residential school means that when he leaves it, he isn’t leaving anyone he knows behind apart from the named teachers.
As for strengths, the description of action in the story is gripping. I suddenly feel like an athlete when the protagonist steps on the ice, even though I’ve never played hockey. When the protagonist is still living a more traditional life as a child, we get a taste of what was lost when he was sent away to the boarding school meant to strip first nations of their culture. And whole our main character Saul’s grandmother was right, that the Creator that certain Indigenous peoples believe in and revere is the same monotheistic God that those in the west and middle-east revere, it is telling how the two cultures (Ojibway and Catholic) use that knowledge to inform their behaviour much differently. Even more central, sensitive details are handled smoothly and naturally—though at times a bit predictably or heavy-handedly. The exception is the shocking ending, which was unpredicted but wholly fitting in the narrative. It is an uncomfortable wake-up moment for both reader and protagonist.