Like many Canadians, I decided that the best way to mark Canada Day this year was to reflect rather than celebrate. I have remarked here before on the shock of realizing my own ignorance about residential schools; the recent heartbreaking stories of unmarked graves has (finally, belatedly) prompted a wider recognition of the need for non-Indigenous Canadians to learn more and do better. One part of that work is listening, and one way to hear more Indigenous voices and stories is to read Indigenous authors. With that in mind, I chose Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse as my Canada Day reading.
In many ways it proved to be a good choice. I’m not sure it’s old enough yet to count as a “classic,” but Indian Horse is an award-winning, highly regarded, widely read (and, I’ve learned, frequently assigned) novel, and a ‘Canada Reads’ contender: on these grounds, reading it at last is a way of catching up with a book that has more than proven its significance. It is painfully topical, and its portrayal of Saul’s time at Saint Jerome’s (St. Germ’s, as the children call it) is graphic, upsetting, and memorable. Wagamese strategically highlights just a few horrific examples of abuse and trauma, leaving it to his readers to multiply them by the number of children forced into these institutions; the rising tally of graves now being acknowledged (‘discovered’ seems like the wrong word as so many knew they were there but were ignored) makes that grim math anything but theoretical.
Wagamese writes vividly about the landscape and the Ojibway traditions that shape Saul’s identity and the pain of being forced away from them and from his family. He also writes really well about hockey: as someone who has never been at all interested in hockey (or any sport), I was surprised how beautiful and exciting some of these sequences were to read. Hockey’s centrality to (many people’s idea of) Canadian identity makes Saul’s story of finding freedom on the ice and then having that joy and his spirit broken by racism an effective way of saying something broader about Canada’s rifts and failures as a nation. The road Saul takes from that breaking point back to some kind of peace, with himself and with hockey, is a hopeful version of a story that both the novel and the news tell us doesn’t always end that way.
Memorable, readable, topical – and yet I also found Indian Horse a bit dissatisfying, a reaction I might have avoided if I had approached it as a young adult novel, which it turns out to be … maybe? I didn’t think it was when I ordered it, but as I was reading it and thinking that, for all its difficult subject matter, it seemed stylistically unsophisticated and often quite heavy-handed, it occurred to me that it felt like YA fiction and I looked it up and found that it won an award for YA fiction. Aha! That explained it! Or does it? Because I looked around some more and could not confirm that Indian Horse was written or marketed as YA fiction. That left me wondering if or how that question should matter to my judgment of how good a novel Indian Horse is. I don’t look down on fiction written for young(er) readers. I cherish and have written enthusiastically about some of my own favorite YA novels! But they are written differently than adult novels (or what’s the point of the category?) and in my experience one distinction is a certain simplification, of style and often of theme. Indian Horse deals with tough topics but it does so in pretty blunt and uncomplicated sentences; it makes its points in what sometimes seemed awkwardly obvious ways, without subtlety (“I couldn’t take it. I couldn’t run the risk of someone knowing me, because I couldn’t take the risk of knowing myself”). I felt this flatness particularly reading the last third of the novel, which at times seemed almost perfunctory, as if Wagamese was just pushing through some necessary steps to get to the ending. But then the very final part felt fresh again.
Indian Horse definitely tells an important story; I’m glad I read it. I’ve been thinking a lot lately for my research about the challenge of writing fiction that aims to inform or reform and how to balance that social or political goal with artistic design – how to make the two goals one. Indian Horse is not exactly a didactic novel, but it is a novel ‘with a purpose,’ so in addition to what it adds to my understanding of the specific stories and contexts it addresses, it gives me another example of that perpetual problem to ponder.