Saturday, May 23, 2020

Indian Horse, a review

Netflix, the other night, popped up an interesting title: Indian Horse. As soon as I discovered that this was a Canadian offering that had premiered at the 2017 Toronto International Film festival, I was more than ready to give it a try. My first guess, from the image, was that it was a hockey story with a First Nations' protagonist.

CBC Image

All I know about hockey is--not much! I watched the "big boys" play on Skaneateles Lake long ago. These young men played with vigor, a lot of shoving, falling and shouting. It was an exciting game to watch, which is what I did from a venue well beyond the area marked out for the game. No walls led to occasional danger for onlookers, as you can imagine.

I loved to be out-of-doors, even in the coldest weather. That 1950's lake, once frozen to a gleaming sheet, was a fabulous playground, as long as there hadn't been too much sticky snow to cover it up. Hockey is a sport of fabulous grace and violence, pretty equally mixed.  We all know the ancient joke: "I went to see a fight, but then a hockey game broke out."

It turns out that hockey is an important part of Indian Horse, but it wasn't "embattled underdog, Saul Indian Horse, finds glory and acceptance through sports" kind of tale.  Instead, the central subject is racism and the related residential school cruelty. None of the abuse portrayed in the film--or in the original book, brilliantly written by Richard Wagamese--was new to me because of the things I'd learned -- from John Wisdomkeeper and from research -- in order to become part of the Canadian Historical Brides project and work on Fly Away Snow Goose.  

Familiarity with these stories, however, doesn't stifle the horror of the medieval punishments inflicted upon terrified children who have just been ripped away--often by men with guns--from the only world they've ever known. Residential Schools, in the U.S.A. and in Canada, have a lot of sins to answer for.

Much of the film was set in a stark, industrial wasteland, which could be anywhere in North America, those dark working men's bars in mining/lumbering towns whose business is to chew up the landscape for money and spit out earthly ruin. "Glory" is a word which reoccurs. It is used by Indian Horse's abuser, the Catholic priest who also introduces him to a game where he can fly. "Glory" also appears in the scenes at God's Lake, the secret place where his ancestors once lived and to which Saul travels in one of the penultimate scenes of his spiritual rebirth.

The movie was beautiful and sad, but I knew from the hurry at the end that the source would have even more to say. I am just now finishing the book, read in the last twenty-four hours in one giant bite. What a powerful, spare writer was Richard Wagamese, for, sadly, he's already gone. I'm looking forward to reading more of his work and truly sorry he's not still here, busy sharing his hard-won wisdom and poetic prose.

The life of the author seems to have been as full of suffering and struggle as that of Saul Indian Horse.  One of four children abandoned in the bush by parents gone off on a drinking bout, the older ones took the younger to shelter in a railway station when their supplies ran out. Here the children were found and taken into custody. Richard and the others went to foster homes. He was adopted at nine by Presbyterian zealots who refused to allow him to connect with his 1st Nations past and attempted to beat the Indian out of him. At sixteen he ran off to live on the streets. Here, drugs and drink claimed him, and he went to prison a couple of times. 

Sheltering in libraries, he began to read, and through reading found his way to his talent for writing. Against such terrible odds, eventually, Mr. Wagamese became a successful journalist. He published his first novel Keeper 'n' me in 1994. When he died in his sleep in 2017, he was sixty-two and had published thirteen books, some meditations on life, some novels. Richard Wagamese was born Ojibway, of the Wabasseemoong tribe of Northwest Ontario, and how deeply grateful I am to have discovered his true and graceful writing.

~~Juliet Waldron

All my novels at Books We Love

18th and 19th Century novels, some romances, some fantasies, 
many semi-biographical novels about my heroes--and heroines.

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