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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese – Native Canadians and hockey.

July 4, 2022 11 comments

Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese (2012) French title: Jeu blanc. Translated by Christine Raguet.

This week Lisa from ANZ LitLovers hosts her First Nation Reading Week. In previous years, I read books by Aborigine authors but this year, I picked two books by North American Indians. (I use the word Indian because these writers use it themselves.) The first one is by the Ojibway Canadian writer Richard Wagamese. I had already read his Medicine Walk but I think that Indian Horse is even better.

Set in Manitoba and the north of Ontario, the book is the story of Saul Indian Horse who speaks from a rehab facility where he’s treated for alcoholism. His psychologist asked him to write his story to rid himself from its weight.

Saul was born in 1953 in an Ojibway family and had an older brother, Ben. He spent his first years living according to the traditional Ojibway ways, as his family hid the children in the woods to avoid their kidnapping by the government. They didn’t want their kids to be sent to a school belonging to the Canadian residential school system.

The authorities caught Ben first and after a fateful trip, Saul was sent to Saint Jerome’s Indian Residential School. This place is hell on earth. The catholic nuns and priests who run the place are positively awful.

The children have no actual education. They endure moral and sexual harassment. They have to work hard. They die due to child abuse and are buried in the woods. It reminded me of The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead.

I’ll never understand institutions that abuse children. When these institutions are Christian, it’s even worse. Saul explains that breakfast was a torture because they had to eat bland and vile porridge when the nuns and priest at the nearby table had bacon and eggs. How is that in line with the message of the New Testament?

Saul’s way out appears when Father Gaston Leboutillier arrives at St Jerome’s and starts a hockey team. Saul has a gift for the game. It will give him a goal, a mental lifeline to keep going at St Jerome’s.

Hockey is his safe place. It’s a game he excels at and when he’ll later join a team, it will give him the immense pleasure of the game but also expose him to the ever-present racism against native Canadians. I confess that some descriptions of the hockey games went over my head. It’s not a popular sport in France –the French publisher had to include two pages of explanations about hockey to enlighten the reader about it –so I probably didn’t enjoy as much as I should have the outstanding descriptions of hockey games.

Indian Horse is the poignant story of a man whose identity was partly destroyed and stolen by an inhumane system. It is an ode to hockey and a descent into the life of an Indian in Canada in the 1960s and 1970s. It wasn’t pretty and it’s consistent with what Plamondon describes about the Migmaqs in Taqawan.

Saul’s life is built on drama but he still finds beauty and self-value in hockey. His sport gives him his worst and his best experiences. He faces racism and hatred but also builds friendships and a team family.

Wagamese writes well about the Ojibway culture and how white Canadians treated Indians in the 1970s. Some scenes are shocking but I don’t think his imagination went away from him. Like Baldwin for black people, he’s descriptive. He writes about actual behaviours in a system built to reject Indians. He shows the reader how things were and lets them make their own opinion about it.

We follow Saul in his quest for his lost Indian soul, his buried childhood trauma and his difficulties as an adult. I wanted to lift him up and ensure he’d live a better life from now on. A powerful book.

Highly recommended.

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese

January 17, 2021 10 comments

Medicine Walk by Richard Wagamese (2015) French title: Les étoiles s’éteignent à l’aube. Translated by Christine Raguet.

A couple of months back, I gifted myself with a Kube subscription. I described my reading tastes, chose an independent libraire (of course, I selected Charlotte, whose bookstore is named La vie devant soiLife Before Us) to pick me a monthly read. I love book blind dates.

Medecine Walk by Richard Wagamese was the first book I received through this monthly subscription and Charlotte was spot on. Wagamese (1955-2017) is a Canadian indigenous writer, from the Ojibwe nation.

Medecine Walk takes us to British Columbia, the cold part of the state. Franklin (Frank) Starlight is sixteen. He doesn’t know who his mother is and his contacts with his father have been scarce and disastrous. Eldon is an alcoholic who works to pay his booze and otherwise lives in squalor.

Frank was raised on a small farm by The Old Man. He doesn’t know how he’s connected to him but this man took him in and raised him as his son. Franklin is a quiet boy, hardworking and attuned to the majestic nature around him. He loves solitary travels in the woods and knows how to survive in the wilderness. He never made friends in school, was called Injun too many times and dropped out of school as soon as he could.

He’s quite content with his life when his father Eldon asks him to come and visit him. Frank goes reluctantly and learns that his father is dying. Alcohol got the better of him and now he wants to go and die like a warrior, sitting facing east. He has a spot in mind and wants Frank to take him there.

This cathartic journey will be an opportunity for Eldon to reveal his past to his son, give him some clues about where he comes from and who The Old Man is. For Frank, this difficult walk with his suffering father is his chance to reconnect to his past, to patch up the foundations of his soul that were fractured by his unknown origins and be stronger for the future.

When I pick up pieces of Eldon’s story to build a timeline in my head, I come to the conclusion that Frank was born around 1960, so, about the same as Wagamese. Frank doesn’t know much about his biological parents, and that’s a big issue. Eldon doesn’t talk much and The Old Man always thought it wasn’t his story to tell, leaving a young boy wondering about his mother, instinctively looking for her around him. Eldon starts talking when he doesn’t have a choice, when taking his memories with him in the grave would end up erasing his presence on Earth. After all, after we’re gone, we only survive in others’ memories.

Eldon’s story is sad but Frank holds his own and doesn’t accept his father’s circumstances as valid excuses. At least, not readily. He can’t help thinking that you always have a choice and that Eldon took the easy route, leaving his son in someone else’s care and using his addiction as an excuse not to step up. Of course, things are always more complicated than that but Frank is only sixteen.

The truth is Eldon himself doesn’t know much about his lineage. His surname is Starlight and he doesn’t know where it comes from. He feels not uprooted but “unrooted”. To be uprooted would mean he had roots in the first place but although he knew his parents, he doesn’t know much about Ojibwe traditions. He’s in a strange limbo, the whites see him as an Indian and he doesn’t belong to an Ojibwe community. It’s hard to build a strong backbone in these conditions. Although Eldon didn’t go to a boarding school for Indigenous people, I couldn’t help thinking that his not knowing about his family’s history was the direct consequence of the Canadian indigenous people policies.

As a reader, I was happy that Frank got the clues about his past when he was young enough to patch up his inner holes. He has a chance to mend himself and move on. I liked that he listened to his father but that he was smart enough to keep his critical mind. I closed the book thinking he’s be alright.

Medicine Walk is a good reading companion to The Hour of Lead by Bruce Holbert and Eldon’s life reminded me of stories by Annie Proulx.

Highly recommended. Thank you, Charlotte!

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