I’d heard of *Indian Horse* from CBC’s “Canada Reads” competition and from a few fellow readers who told me it was about residential schools and the crimes committed there. So I picked up the novel prepared to encounter a narrative of abuse and its reverberations across generations.
I suppose that feeling of preparation is indicative of my arrogance – my sense that ‘oh yes, i’ve heard about residential schools, I have leftist politics, I’ve been educated’ – as if a textbook could do justice (ha! what a telling phrase) to the complex narratives and somehow prepare (which is to say, neutralize or assume enough knowledge that I won’t be surprised or learn anything) for the reading.
The novel demanded a different kind of reading. From the opening pages of Saul in a rehab facility, this reader can predict the trajectory of the plot. And, to some degree, the plot follows a line from early childhood spent with his family in the bush, to residential school and the abuse perpetrated there, to the beginning of a life after the school, to an examination of the permanent effects of such abuse, to the investigation of what it might mean to heal. Where the narrative offers deviation from this prepared plot is in its exploration of the pervasiveness of abuse and the exploding of an idea of abuse as a crime committed by one person against one other.
It would be a mistake, I think, to read this novel as “simply” an exploration of the abuse of residential schools. Instead it is a painful and unrelenting journey through the layers of abuse that make up the nation. Saul’s life and his telling of it explores how single individuals can commit crimes – in the case of the priests and nuns at the school or the white children at hockey games who hurl racist slurs – but also the abuse and crimes of the nation.
As hockey comes to stand for Canada – the game is claimed by other white people and is imagined by Saul as “their game” – Saul’s attempt to make a place for himself – a glorious, gifted player, truly exceptional – and his subsequent rejection and expulsion from the game presents a powerful and depressing metaphor for the nation as a space or idea that cannot allow compromise or inclusion, that rather derives its existence from exclusivity and rigorous defense of its borders even while it needs the demonized other for success. That Saul is the gifted hero and cannot make his way in this bigoted white world – in the metaphorical Canada – compounds and amplifies the injustice because if the white population can see no worth in the hero than what expectations should the ordinary carry?
The passages of hockey games – and of Saul’s talent – are breathtaking. The casual descriptions of sexual, physical and emotional abuse are devastating. Saul’s voice – his open admission that the story is his attempt to give voice to his history – demands to be heard; in his demand for an audience that listens to his story he makes each reader consider his/her complicity, but also to what extent the story will be finished when the book closes.
And I suppose this is my only complaint – that the narrative ends with redemption. With Saul’s spiritual healing, with his reconciliation with the game of hockey (and so with Canada) and his decision to continue to engage with those who have, and would like to, continue to dismiss him on the basis of his origins. It’s an odd complaint, but I felt the ending let this reader off to easily. As if to say I need not consider my role in this history any further because Saul – and those like him – have the sole responsibility themselves to heal. And I think that’s its own kind of injustice.
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