Sunday, September 17, 2017

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

My original awareness of "Indian Horse" was when it was in the Canada Reads competition.  Now it has been selected by the Burlington Public Library as their "One Book, One Burlington" selection for 2017.  This is the 11th edition of the event which involves the whole community and has always offered an interesting choice.

Like a lot of people I look for new things, but as I get older I realize that there is usually lot more in a book than you understood the first time around.

The story is being recounted by a recovering alcoholic, Saul Indian Horse forced to tell his life story as part of his redemption, but he is very skeptical.  His name comes from his Grandfather who was the first Objibway of his tribe who brought a horse.  Within his own family, the narrator has conflict between his traditional Grandmother and his Christian mother.  The story starts in the 1960's while his family is trying to live their own life.  He is snatched and taken to a residential school and he has no further contact with his family.

Residential schools for indigenous students have been in the news and subject to the Truth and Reconciliation commission. The experience drove some kids to suicide, others to run away.  They were treated as heathens (with heathen parents) and inundated with Christianity.  Native languages were forbidden and when caught speaking were punished. Many of the priests were sexual predators for both the boys and girls.  Things they couldn't talk about but the effect was to deaden the soul.  Lifelong adjustments usually involving alcohol and drugs

The author loved hockey as a youth and the game provides excitement in the book..  A new priest encourages the boys to tie an interest in hockey by watching "Hockey Night in Canada" and some books.  Just below the age when he would be allowed to play hockey Saul begs for a way to be involved.  At first he is given permission to clean the snow off early in the morning, then he becomes an equipment manager.  A big breakthrough when Saul teaching himself to skate feels confident enough to discard the chair.  "I became a bird. An ungainly bird at first."

Much of the book is a sports story told with the obstacle of being an outsider.  At first as a younger and smaller player who quickly demonstrates superior skills.  Later as part of an Indian team discriminated against by white teams and their audience.  He makes it to the Junior A level in the big city of Toronto, but cannot escape a feeling of having to measure up.

After years of rejection he drops out and eventually succumbs to alcohol.  The book ends hopefully, but the reader is more aware that society has been unfair to natives.  Later in the book, one assumption is destroyed.  I don't want to spoil for those who haven't yet read the book.

Most of the book takes place in northwestern Ontario and at one time moves to Toronto, but every time they step off the familiar surroundings they encounter discrimination.

Richard Wagamese, once described himself as a second generation survivor of the residential school system.  His parents and other extended family members went through the experience.  He feels he suffered from it as at a very early age his parents abandoned him and two siblings to go on a drinking binge and he was rescued by the police. As a result he didn't see his parents again for 21 years and spent much of that time in foster homes and and one stint as an adoptee forbidden contact with other indigenous people.  He developed many bad habits before he got set on a better path.

He became a journalist.  While at the Calgary Herald he won a national award for writing on indigenous affairs.   He acted in one episode of "North of 60."   Died recently in his home in Kamloops, British Columbia on March 10, 2017.

The book has been made into a movie and debuted at TIFF very recently.

My first experience with the One book One Burlington:  http://www.johnfdavidson.com/2012/07/beauty-of-humanity-movement-book-review.html

A more recent experience with two libraries:

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