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Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese: An incredible hockey novel, and much more

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Hockey novels tend to be a bit of a bore to read, but that's not the case with Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse. It's much more than just a hockey novel, but it manages to capture the beauty and wonder of Canada's game while surrounding it with a much more meaningful and thought-provoking story of the Aboriginal experience in Canada.

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White River, Ontario
White River, Ontario
P199 (Wikipedia)

In Indian Horse, Richard Wagamese does something few authors can do with any measure of success: He's written a fictional hockey story without overwhelming readers with so much romanticism that they feel like they're consuming liquid sugar while reading it. Most hockey novels are so overhanded and pulpy that when you put them down, you get the feeling you've still got something stuck in your teeth. Not so with Indian Horse, which may very well be the best Canadian novel of the year--and the best hockey story in recent memory.

Characterizing the book as simply a hockey novel, though, won't do it justice. Indian Horse is the story of Saul Indian Horse, an Ojibway whose life transects the deep valleys of residential schools and substance abuse as well as the highest peak of minor-league hockey. In the process, Wagamese offers an entrancing book that will appeal to hockey fans while also serving as a metaphor for the Aboriginal experience in Canada.

But to speak specifically to the hockey portion of the book for a moment, one thing stood out to me: Saul Indian Horse sounds a lot like Erik Karlsson in the way he plays the game. He was never close to as big as his opponents or teammates, but his speed more than makes up for the lack of size. (In the book, one of Indian Horse's teammates calls him "A bag of antlers, [...] But fast." a phrase that could have been used to describe Karlsson, at least on his draft day.) His vision for the ice allows him to see the game and predict the plays before they materialize, with an almost extra-sensory understanding of its flows and ebbs. He's got a lethal wrist shot, but is a playmaker more than a sniper. Indian Horse may have been a centreman in the novel, but their games still sound remarkably similar.

The power of Indian Horse is based on the incredible contrast Wagamese makes between the purity of hockey (at least before it's spoiled by bigotry and greed) and the brutally horrifying account of Canada's residential school systems, as well as the racism that continues to cause so much suffering, even today.

I've long been interested in First Nations, Métis, and Inuit cultures and histories in North America (specifically Canada). The respect this continent's original inhabitants have for our environment speaks to me. I continue to be as impressed with their resilience of Aboriginal people in Canada as I am outraged by the historical injustices and continued persecution perpetrated against them. Any novel that brings Aboriginal life together with the sport of hockey stands a good chance of gaining my approval, and this book does it excellently. Indian Horse is the best hockey novel I've ever read, and vaulted into the short list of my favourite novels of all time.

Although it seems an obvious observation, Wagamese's Indian Horse falls in a similar genre as Joseph Boyden's Three Day Road and Through Black Spruce. It's modern fiction that chronicles the devastating effects of Canadian government policy on and societal discrimination against this country's original inhabitants, punctuated with short, direct sentences but vividly illustrated by the imagery of northern Ontario's boreal forests. The book also brings to mind Khaled Hosseini's The Kite Runner in the way readers are abruptly jerked back and forth between happiness to sorrow.

If you're frustrated by the lockout and looking to be reminded of the beauty of hockey in its purest form, read Indian Horse. The journey is heart-wrenching and tortuous at times, but the power, magic, and grace of the game are obvious in the end.


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