My Thoughts on Indian Horse

“… everyone, especially anyone from Canada, should read this book.”

I first had to read Indian Horse about a month ago for school, and usually that’s a recipe for disaster. When forced to read anything, you go into it with a preconceived mindset. You understand that it is mandatory, and from that point on it feels like work. A few books have escaped the clutches of ‘mandatory reading’ and become favourites of mine, but that mindset was definitely there when I started to read Indian Horse. The book is written by author Richard Wagamese and uses the character of Saul Indian Horse to relate to the reader a lot of the struggles that Indigenous Peoples in Canada have suffered, and still suffer from to this day. Saul is taken from his family, placed in a residential school, and finds solace in hockey. It’s a story of triumph, but also one of darkness outlining that we can never really outrun our demons, but instead have to learn to live around them.

The beginning of the book was slow the first time I read it, and that sentiment kind of stuck with me the second time as well. What Wagamese does in this opening of the book is try to chronicle Saul’s family history. Indigenous Peoples put great stock in their lineage and culture, and to properly understand the rest of the story Wagamese knew that we had to get that. This beginning part of the story is a little hard to get into to only becasue it’s such a foreign subject. The words used, the ideologies that are spelled out; most of it was completely alien to me. On my second read-through I was able to allow for the story to take me on a journey, knowing that it gets more engaging in the later pages.

When Saul gets taken from his family and thrust into a completely new environment, the disgusting mark on Canada’s history that is the residential school, the story takes a serious turn. Throughout the beginning of the book we, much like Saul, had heard whisperings of the schools and what goes on there. But when Saul gets taken we get to see these atrocities first-hand, just like he does. Indian Horse isn’t a true story, but it uses stories and facts to build a realistic picture. So while it is technically fiction, and while we would love for the story to be completely fabricated, know that a lot of what Wagamese writes isn’t far from the truth of what actually went on in these schools. The way Wagamese writes this portion of the book is breathtaking at times. Not only the way he makes your stomach turn with the sometimes child-like explanations of what goes on at this school, but also how he conveys the sadness and despair felt by most of the children there. It feels like whenever you can get a breath of fresh air the book comes along and rips your heart out once more. Wagamese’s words will never come close to the actual horrors that took place in Canada’s past, but he words it in a way that makes the concept more relatable to the average reader.

When Saul first finds hockey the tone of the book once again changes. This time it is more triumphant, but there is still that air of sadness that plagues every paragraph. Saul throws himself completely at the game as a means of escape from his terrible life at the residential school; and while it is great that he has found this escapism, it’s heartbreaking to know that a child should never have to look for something like that in life. This part of the book, on my first reading, once again slowed down. I felt that Wagamese was getting a little too into the hockey aspect of the book, and I felt it was kind of missing the point of what the beginning of the book set up. I see now that this style of writing reflected the character’s mindset. To him life was hockey, and since this is a story about his life all of the focus then had to switch to hockey as well. The way Wagamese writes about the game really shows that he has an understanding and respect for it, and these passages are written in ways that convey the action of sport so well.

But that darkness never leaves. Although I thought the focus of the book had shifted for good Wagamese brings it back and conveys some new horrors. Reading about Saul constantly running way from his past was heartbreaking, and the way Wagamese write about his experiences with hockey and other things was astounding to me. I don’t want to spoil the book as I feel everyone should read it, but everything became so real towards the end. Despite me not experiencing anything even close to as traumatic as Saul did, I found myself relating to his character. Understanding him when he spoke of escape and fear. Understanding those emotions he would talk about; about being stoic in the face of adversity. I got it.

The ending fo this book still gives me chills. Despite having already read it, reading the final chapter made my stomach grow a pit and tears fill my eyes. The way Wagamese conveyed all of these emotions and complex issues in an easily-digestible (despite the emotional toll) novel is astounding to me. I legitimately think that everyone, especially anyone from Canada, should read this book.

As far as the film adaptation of Indian Horse goes, there’s quite a bit to unpack. I would like to first point out that Indian Horse was a pretty faithful adaptation of the book, and despite its shortcomings I believe it did the story a service. Regardless of how hard this is for you to hear, a lot of people don’t read. It’s not that they can’t read, but they kind of object to it. If you tell someone to read a book, and tell the same person to watch a movie, it’s more likely that person will watch the movie before they even consider reading the book. Books feel like commitment, and humans aren’t a fan of being stuck in something. What I’m trying to say here is Indian Horse took the story that Richard Wagamese wrote, and made it more digestible for the masses. Despite the various issues I had with the movie (which I’ll get into later), I respect that it took the story and made it accessible; becasue despite the medium Indian Horse is a story that needs to be told.

So Indian Horse, being only 100 minutes long, had to cut a lot of the story from the book. I felt that for the most part it did a good job of not really getting rid of anything, but instead combining experiences so they didn’t take as long to portray. There’s not one particular thing that was cut from the movie that I thought should have been kept in, but I do think that there could have been more of an emphasis on the horrors that Saul saw the the residential school. I understand that it takes a lot more to convey someone dying on film than it does in a book wherein the narrator just says “they died”, but Indian Horse did have narration for some parts anyway. And that was my other gripe with the movie; including a narrator was smart as a lot of the story takes place from Saul’s point of view, but the use of the narrator was so sparing and oddly chosen. For instance towards the end of the story when Saul is battling the hardest with his demons, the book gives you so much insight into his mental state at the time but you lose all of that completely in the movie. Everything just feels so truncated and rushed towards the end of the movie that a lot of the impact that the book had is missing.

As far as the performances go I was happy with almost all of them except for the actors playing the different iterations of Saul. I found that child Saul, played by Sladen Peltier, had a hard time conveying a lot of emotion. Granted a lot of the emotions in the story, particularly in the earlier parts are very complex, but this performance was pretty underwhelming in my opinion. And things don’t get better as the movie went on. The other two iterations of Saul both seemed to lack a lot of emotional depth as well. Apart for the performances I was a fan of how the movie was done on a technical level; both the direction and score were great. I was particularly impressed with how they captured Saul’s ‘vision’, and the immersion in the action whenever a hockey game was on screen.

One thing I will say about the movie adaptation of Indian Horse was how respectfully it was made. Not only did it take the story and broadcast it to the world, but the beginning and ending of the movie are filled with information cards that aim to inform the viewers about real tragedies that happened at residential schools. These moments of education were not lost on me, and I respect that the film realized it had an obligation that was bigger than itself and it seized that opportunity. If Indian Horse teaches even just one person about residential schools and the horrors that still plague many indigenous people today, it will have done its job.

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