Indian Horse, A Review

In the spirit of hockey I believed I had found community, a shelter and a haven from everything bleak and ugly in the world.
— Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
Indian Horse
By Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese lays out a powerful story about childhood abuse in a Catholic boarding school and the trauma of racism in the life of many American Indians. The story follows Saul Indian Horse as he goes from the bush as a child to the confines of a boarding school. There at the boarding school, what you expect to happen happened. However, despite the allusions to sexual abuse and the outright descriptions of physical abuse, Saul found his way out of the mental anguish the school wrought on him by turning to the game of hockey.

It’s in this love for the game of hockey that Saul sees an escape from his life of pain. He’s a good player, but racism increases as he transitions from playing solely with indians to playing on minor league all-white teams.

Richard Wagamese does a great job at describing events, emotions, and discussions throughout the novel. He’s not as quotable with pithy one-liners as Alexie or Erdrich, but the depth of Wagamese’s prose draws the reader in and allows for a visceral reaction. The descriptions of how Saul’s grandmother died and how he felt during the racism being thrown at him drew me in. When Saul finally snapped at the racism and his life turned down hill, I was with him emotionally. When Wagamese reveals the sexual abuse that Saul underwent from the priest that we trusted in the beginning of the book, I was angry. I felt like I was betrayed. Wagamese wrote that emotion expertly.

Speaking of that priest, Father Leboutilier, we were led to believe he was different from the rest. He rescued Saul from the boarding school and the reader was led to believe he was a sort of white savior in Saul’s life. Only later in the novel, near the very end, do we realize, seemingly along with Saul, of the abuse that Leboutilier inflicted in Saul’s life. What an emotional and great way to write this aspect of the story. That alone gives me great respect for Wagamese’s writing.

Fred Kelly called us ‘a war party on skates.
— Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

As said above, the book is half hockey love story and half traumatizing events. Saul goes through a lot in his life and he weaves in and out of many people’s lives without really committing to any. The only thing he truly commits to for the majority of the story is hockey itself. The closest he came to commitment in a relationship was with the family that took him in from the boarding school and entered him into the local rez team, the Moose. Here Saul finds his pride and starts flourishing as a hockey player. Here Saul finds a friend, a brother, in Virgil and a father figure in Fred. These are the people that Saul turns to again when he understands the need to begin redemption in his life after spending several years as an alcoholic to fight his past experiencing abuse and racism.

In the book, Saul plays hockey with clarity of mind. No matter the insults, no matter the physical violence brought against him, he stays level headed and plays clean. In doing so, he found he could always triumph over his enemy. There was a parallel with how Saul dealt with his own physical and sexual abuse along with the racist insults that flew his way. He dealt with them calmly and, with the help of hockey, he overcame through escape. But that wasn’t enough.

When Saul finally snapped in hockey, he snapped in his life as well. He could no longer play the game of hockey happily as he did before. He could also not live life as he lived before. When he lost hockey, he lost his life. Hockey was his escape, and now that it was gone he turned to alcohol to escape. Alcohol is an all too common method of escape for those seeking to flee their trauma. What was left for Saul to turn to? He was dissuaded from religion from his experience at the boarding school. He lost the only thing he loved, hockey. He had no family. All he had was a terrible life that he wanted to escape.

What I liked best about the book, outside of Wagamese’s descriptions, was the complete arc of story found within Indian Horse. We see the full transition from innocent child, to trauma, to love of a game, to hate of that game, to succumbing to racism, to draining the bottle, to realization, to redemption. We never saw the full picture of redemption at the end of the story, but we get a glimpse at the beginning of it. Saul’s return to the one place where he felt the most at home brings about the beginning of healing for him. The story ended with a heartfelt solution that I believe to be essential to the book as a whole. Saul returned to the first family he really had. He returned to the Moose, to Virgil, and he picked up his life where he would have had it if he hadn’t left in the first place. Whether he should have left or shouldn’t have isn’t up for debate. What’s happening here is that redemption is taking place and a new life is breaking for Saul. One with acceptance and healing for who he is. And that is a great end to a great story. Wagamese doesn’t have to spell things out for us. It’s a hard road to healing, but Saul finally finds his community not in a game, but in the players of the Moose. He finds his redemption in fostering relationships with others.

Steve Dragswolf