Synopsis: "Saul Indian Horse has hit bottom. His last binge almost killed him, and now he’s a reluctant resident in a treatment centre for alcoholics, surrounded by people he’s sure will never understand him. But Saul wants peace, and he grudgingly comes to see that he’ll find it only through telling his story. With him, readers embark on a journey back through the life he’s led as a northern Ojibway, with all its joys and sorrows..."
This is undeniably a very good story. We are introduced to Saul Indian Horse as he tells us he is from the Fish Clan of the northern Ojibway. "They say that our cheekbones are cut from those granite ridges that rise above our homeland. They say that the deep brown of our eyes seeped out of the fecund earth that surrounds the lakes and marshes."
The early part of the book deals with the attempts of his family to evade the government agents who kidnap Aboriginal children from their families to put them into residential schools so they can be forcibly assimilated into the white man's culture and taught Christianity. After the death of some members of his family, Saul is seven years old and alone in the wilderness until the government agents find him and transfer him to the custody of priests and nuns in the much feared school. It is from this point that we learn of the physical, sexual and mental abuse and suffering endured by young children, their suicides, their madness, their fears and loss of self-worth and identity.
Then a new priest arrives at the school and introduces the game of hockey to the boys. It is here that Saul finds his refuge from the bleakness around him. "Our people have rituals and ceremonies meant to bring us vision. I have never participated in any of them, but I have seen things. I have been lifted up and out of this physical world into a place where time and space have a different rhythm. I always remained within the borders of this world, yet I had the eyes of one born to a different place. Our medicine people would call me a seer."
He can see the spirit of the game, practices and perfects his skills until he finds competition among other Aboriginals in various towns in a game where Saul shines, but the jeers and taunts he is subjected to as an Indian playing a "white man's game" finally destroy his love of the game and he turns his rage into violence and the self destruction of alcohol. He drifts from job to job sinking further and further into the pits of alcoholism. The day comes when he is hospitalized and sent to a rehabilitation facility. It is here that he realizes that in order to heal and move on he must first journey back to confront the devils and roots of his pain, and this is that story.
It would have been easy for the writer to have the narrator fall into self pity but to his credit he avoided it. The reader certainly felt his pain and rage at the injustices but it was presented in a way that made it bearable to read on. There was also incredible hope in Saul's journey of self discovery, that he would use this inner eye to bring about his healing.
I'm ashamed to admit that although I had heard of some scandal regarding residential schools, the details were never sought out nor given. To read this book was an eye opener for me and one that I'm grateful to have had. I definitely plan to read and learn more, not only about this shameful part of Canadian history but about the beauty of traditions in Aboriginal culture as well! I'm so grateful that the author wrote this book so that non-natives can gain a glimpse into the lives of the native peoples and see a mirror of ourselves and how our ignorance continues to perpetuate the injustices. It is only through education and awareness that we can all help to make life better, with respect and true justice for everyone.
Indian Horse is the 2013 winner of Canada Reads People's Choice Poll. The author can be seen reading a segment of his book and discussing his writing of Indian Horse on Canada Reads .
You can find more information about the history of residential schools, the reasons given for originally starting them, what went wrong and how the government and churches are trying to compensate those who were sent and suffered at the schools at this CBC post, and an article by Richard Wagamese on What it Means to be Indian in Canada Today in the Globe and Mail. Both articles well worth the read.
If you are interested in reading more on the Aboriginal culture you might check out the 8th Fire website for book suggestions ~ fiction and non-fiction. "The majority of works listed here are by Aboriginal authors — although a number of significant works by Canadian non-Aboriginal authors are included also."
I highly recommend.