An Ojibway man struggling to recover from substance abuse looks back on his youth, during which he was forced to endure one of Canada's notoriously abusive residential schools for the forced assimilation of indigenous children and found solace, for a time, in the game of hockey.
Wagamese accomplishes a similar bifurcation of perspectives by utilizing both the straightforward Zhaunagush descriptiveness of the journalistic trade (Wagamese received a National Newspaper Award in Canada in 1990) and the more free, lush voice of a man who has visions. His prose is at its best while exploring two opposing poles: Saul’s immersion in the physical world and his despair over his place in Canadian society as an Ojibway. At points these two come together in scenes of marvelous power, particularly his return visits to St. Jerome’s and to the lake where he had lived with his grandmother ... Indian Horse unflinchingly portrays the troubled lives of people trying to protect their identities from eradication. In laying bare Saul’s truth, Wagamese honors those in similar predicaments whose stories remain untold.
Wagamese excels at this most important task of the novelist, which is to detail the 'how' of something: How it feels to be a 'rounder,' living on the streets, how it feels to experience horrifying events, or, in Indian Horse, how it feels to skate, to move the puck and to understand the dynamics of the game. He shows how it feels to uncover in oneself unexpected power and also to acknowledge amazing betrayal ... He is such a master of empathy – of delineating the experience of time passing, of lessons being learned, of tragedies being endured – that what Saul discovers becomes something the reader learns, as well, shocking and alien, valuable and true.
Many indigenous authors have portrayed the horrific conditions endured by Native children in boarding schools in both the U.S. and Canada throughout much of the twentieth century. But perhaps no author has written a novel with such raw, visceral emotion about the lifelong damage resulting from this institutionalization as Wagamese ... a story that will long haunt all readers.