Monday, April 9, 2012

Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse

Much as I got swept up by so much of Richard Wagamese's latest novel, Indian Horse (read on my Kobo), I had reservations about it long before the ending. I loved his descriptions of the landscape, and was moved by the narrative involving the protagonist's early years with his family. Indeed, you'd need the proverbial heart of stone not to be moved by the family's dissolution. Broken by the loss of their two other children to death and to residential school, they nevertheless hunted together, sharing their understanding of the land with the young boy, Saul. But when their older son, himself only twelve years old, finds his way back to them through many difficult miles alone on foot after escaping that school, only to die of tuberculosis, the mother and father decide to return his body for the priests to bury, convinced that it is the "sinning" of their "old ways" that is bringing such punishment. Our young protagonist-narrator remains behind with his grandmother. Despite her best efforts, however, they succumb to the difficulties of winter in that harsh landscape, losing their food when their canoe dumps in icy waters. Saul is clinging to his grandmother's last embrace when he is rescued and then placed in the residential school.

Similarly, few would not be both moved and haunted by the numbed, numbing recounting of all the child deaths that transpired in that hateful regime, horrified by the punishments doled out daily, even more by those that worked their way into the night-time.

But to mitigate against the despair and horror Saul narrates, we also witness his burgeoning delight as he discovers the game of hockey and, secretly at first and then with the support of an apparently helpful priest, develops his prodigious skills. Once this combination of talent and commitment propels him into the world beyond the residential school, we cheer as he settles into a nurturing family environment and is welcomed into a First Nations community where he plays on a hockey team with older boys and men.

The happy respite is brief, though, as he gains enough attention to be invited beyond that new community -- with the sad but inevitable effect of confronting racism. Last weekend's Globe and Mail article makes it clear that this persists in the world of junior hockey, in the same area Saul, now nick-named 'Indian Horse" by his teammates and sports reporters, traveled, although one hopes the force of that racism has weakened; the hateful acts to which Indian Horse and his team are exposed would break the spirits of most. A recourse to alcohol almost seems sensible in the face of such acts.

And, of course, this is the recourse Saul takes, and he loses, bit by bit, all that he once treasured. Until, hitting bottom, he is finally guided toward a recovery program, a central task of which is the narration's steady trajectory to uncovering the past's ultimate shame.

So, a novel that educates us while moving and entertaining us, offering moody and evocative landscapes, scenes of heart-warming camaraderie, and cathartic confrontations. What could I have reservations about? Well, when I think about teaching this novel, I applaud the new terrain it opens for those students who don't understand the connections between past and present, those who need to be educated about why First Nations people seem to lag behind in terms of education and employment. It's important that these students learn about the costs of colonization, the Material divide this foundational act of our nation created as well as the persistent psychological destruction that will take generations to play out.

At the same time, though, I sense that once we have exhausted the "Yes, that was some very bad stuff" and "Wow! That's horrible that white people/Christians/our forebears/our government did that to innocent small children," there are limitations to what I can do with the text. My objections are much better articulated by Brett Grubisic (with whom I once sat through a semester of my MA) in a recent Vancouver Sun review. Grubisic points out carefully that there is a regrettable flattening of all white characters, so that the novel loses -- not so much credibility -- as in its ability to satisfy on a more sustaining basis. While I'd want to add that Grubisic doesn't point out the one white character, a rancher, who isn't flattened into a banal evil, I agree heartily with his assessment. I know we're a long, long way from the dominant majority understanding how profoundly the colonizing of Canada disrupted the health and well-being of First Nations people at every imaginable level, I guess I want to be challenged beyond what I already know. And this novel doesn't do that for me.

That said, it is a moving book about a difficult topic and manages to uplift (through its ending but also through a joyous celebration of the dedication to acquiring competence) while it educates. I remember an interview in which Toni Morrison says that if a novelist asks her readers to witness painful historical truths, she feels it incumbent on herself as writer to offer aesthetic compensations. You will find those here.

And, as always, if you've already read the novel, I'd be curious to hear your own assessment.


  1. I've had the same thoughts about some of the novels I have read about Native Canadians (and Americans) over the past few years. I hope this doesn't sound insensitive but there needs to be some progression, beyond recounting past transgressions.

    Have you read Three Day Road by Joesph Boyden? It's the first novel about Natives that I can think of that doesn't"flatten" white people.

  2. Glad to see you back and thanks for taking time to comment again, Ryan. I was actually surprised to find this "flattening" in Indian Horse, as Wagamese offers balanced/positive white characters in other novels -- Ragged Company and Dream Wheels, particularly.
    I think there is still much room and much need for recounting past transgressions -- the hurt and damages haven't yet been anywhere near exorcised, nor do many people really understand how deeply they cut, how horrific they were. And those hurts are still only a generation or two away, with their effects still causing damage.
    That said, many First Nations writers use humour in their work to mitigate against the darkness they present us with. Wagamese does so in other works. And my favourite examples of this approach would be almost anything by Thomas King. King tends to relegate "white people" to the periphery of his narratives, to concentrate instead on narrating the lives and history of FN characters.
    And yes, I've read Boyden's Three Day Road, and liked it very much. I wrote a response to the follow-up novel, Through Black Spruce, here:

  3. Hi, thanks for acknowledging my review.
    I added further thoughts in my blog response. The limited word count of a review can make a thorough discussion an impossibility, especially when a novel raises big questions relating to authorial responsibility and the rewriting narratives of national history...

  4. Hi Brett, I'll try to find time to look at your blog response. My own post, obviously, is not intended as a full review, so I was pleased to be able to direct readers to someone who'd offered a more comprehensive look at the novel.