Saul Indian Horse is in critical condition. Sitting feeble in an alcoholism treatment facility, he is told that sharing his story will help relieve his agony. Though skeptical, he embarks on a heartbreaking journey from the present – and into the woods of Northern Ontario, where his life began in a snowy Ojibway camp. The tale that follows is one of great pain and great determination from Richard Wagamese, an author who “never seems to waste a shot” (New York Times).
After being taken forcibly from his family, Saul is placed in an abusive boarding school determined to expunge his Ojibway traditions and knowledge. But he finds salvation each morning at dawn, practicing hockey alone on the school’s makeshift ice rink. Saul’s gift is undeniable: He quickly rises from his school’s all-Ojibway team to the white-dominated regional circuit. As his skills improve and he gains notoriety, however, each of his victories on the ice is met by racism and hate. As the years pass, Saul must reconcile his passion – the game he loves, that allowed him to escape poverty – with the harshness of a world that will never make him entirely welcome.
Unfolding against the bleak loveliness of Northern Ontario – all rock, marsh, bog, and cedar – this is a singular story of resilience from a beloved storyteller.
I recently read ‘Medicine Walk’ by Wagamese and it was so good that I rushed to read ‘Indian Horse’, another book of his. It was no disappointment. The writing soars and the story is one that evolves over time and speaks to generations of Native American and Native Alaskan children who have spent their childhoods in boarding schools.
As the novel opens, Saul Indian Horse is in a rehabilitation center for treatment of his alcoholism. He has hit bottom and his sponsor has asked him to tell his story. Saul is reluctant to share but, with time, and with a visit to his roots, the reader gradually learns his history.
Saul’s great passion was ice hockey and he was so good at it that he made the NHL. He loved the game, the way it let him escape the poison in his mind, and he loved the camaraderie of the team. Soon, after joining the major league, he finds that he is feeling more rage and anger than enjoyment. He decides to leave the team just as his teammates and coach have decided to kick him out. Saul wanders from bar to bar, drink to drink, until he is so down and out that his life is without meaning. What happened to this man with the passion for the game, the lust to play hockey and soar with the sport?
The answer to Saul’s descent lies in the narrative he tells to his sponsor once he returns to rehab after visiting his now crumbled boarding school, the places he lived as a youth, and his renewed connection to his Ojibway heritage. To say any more would be to provide spoilers. I highly recommend this amazing book that is the story of one man but is also representative of a whole generation of Native American children. It is an amazing book with insight and understanding of those who are culturally outcast by mainstream society. Saul’s story is one that will lift your heart and wet your eyes. It is a book to cherish and remember long after the last page is read.