Richard Wagamese doesn’t mind getting right in the reader’s face, especially if the reader is your average middle-class white person who thinks that her (or his) experience is somehow representative. Wagamese is here to tell you that this is not the case, and to open your eyes to a few things (or worlds) that you don’t normally think about.
In his 2008 novel Ragged Company, his strongest character, Digger, a man who, with several of his homeless friends, strikes it rich with a stray lottery ticket, has a whole lingo of defiance, challenge and eloquent disrespect for the “Square John” world of respectable consumerism, and though he comes to terms with his own failures, he never backs down from his insistence that his point of view is a valid perspective on the nature of existence.
In Wagamese’s most recent novel, Saul Indian Horse introduces himself rather formally in the first line of his “memoir”: Anishinabeg, of the Fish clan, from the shores of the Winnipeg River. Within a very few pages, though, it becomes clear that this pastoral and traditional sense of himself has not come easily, that he has had to fight numerous battles on many fronts in order to achieve self-knowledge and self-acceptance, and if he has succeeded, it has been not only because of luck and not only because of persistence.
To begin with, Saul is a representative Ojibway character. He is mysteriously abandoned on the shores of a remote lake by his parents, but he manages to survive through the efforts of his grandmother, who escapes the lake in the teeth of a severe early blizzard, and gets Saul to a railway depot. He is then, like most of his peers, put into an Indian school run by the Catholic Church.
St. Germ’s is cruel enough to make Oliver Twist’s workhouse look like a suburban elementary school. The children aren’t simply forced to submit, they are tortured, sometimes to death, in the name of a senseless alien power known as “God.” At the school, Saul begins to distinguish himself and his redemption turns out to be something widely considered a white man’s sport: ice hockey.
I have never played hockey. I’ve never watched hockey. According to his autobiography, Richard Wagamese has never played hockey, either. But once Saul gets interested, Indian Horse takes off. Saul’s job, like that of any outsider, is to prove himself in the teeth of furious opposition, and, in some sense, it is a given that he will. How he does it is what draws the reader on. His first breakthrough comes when he discovers that a frozen horse turd can be used for a puck: “I’d take the stick and nudge one turd out of the heap and practice moving it back and forth, stickhandling, like I’d seen the players on Hockey Night in Canada do.”
Saul is small and his equipment is all second-hand and ill-fitting, but Wagamese so successfully delineates how he accomplishes each of the tasks he sets himself that his rise through the ranks, from the school to an Indian League and beyond, until he is noticed by a major league team, is utterly convincing.
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.
But Saul’s job, it turns out, is not to show up the white folks; as hard as that is, it would be too easy for Wagamese’s purposes. Instead, Indian Horse distills much of what Wagamese has been writing about for his whole career into a clearer and sharper liquor, both more bitter and more moving than he has managed in the past. 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.
Jane Smiley is the author of, most recently, Private Life and True Blue .