Travel Blog

1 Oct

Whistler Writers – Reading and Reflecting: Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse



By Rebecca Wood Barrett 

Great literature both entertains and reveals essential truths about the human condition. Once in a while a fictional work opens a window of startling insight into our own lives too. Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse is a novel that is not only a terrific read—and was voted the Canada Reads People’s Choice—it has brought deeper meaning to events in my own life.

In Wagamese’s story, Saul Indian Horse is torn from his land and family and forced into a residential school where he experiences horrific abuse. While at the school he discovers the pure joy of playing hockey, and this saves him for a while. Eventually, the complete destruction of his childhood catches up to him, and he abandons hockey and turns to drink. A lifetime of racism, combined with cultural and familial obliteration, has shrunk him to almost nothing. He decides to visit all of the key places of his life, and ends up back in the town, and with the family that once adopted him after residential school. Here he begins to recover and think about returning to his great love, hockey, as a coach.

I grew up without witnessing racism until I was eleven, when our family moved from white-bread Victoria to North Saanich, where we lived within ten kilometres of three Indian bands. Some of my new friends were scared of the Indians, and made jokes about them. It was ugly and unfair and I didn’t understand the reason for it. What had the Indians, our neighbours, done to us?

In middle school I made an Indian friend named Lolita. She was a lively, cheerful girl with round cheeks and a wonderfully gentle voice. One day when I was thirteen Lolita stepped off the school bus and threatened another friend of mine, who was white. I intervened. Lolita grabbed me by my collar. She shook me, ripped my collar. I was frightened and confused. She had been my friend. I didn’t understand what had happened to turn her from a happy girl into an angry, unknowable teen. When I entered high school a few months later, I was terrified she would beat me up. But Lolita didn’t make it to grade nine. She had dropped out, and I was secretly relieved. But later, once I’d gained some confidence in high school, I felt deeply saddened. I knew that her world had gotten smaller. Almost every opportunity that lay ahead of me and my peers had, for her, ended.

After reading Wagamese’s Indian Horse I’m thinking about Lolita again. I wonder if her family lost a generation to the residential schools. Were her parents’ souls shredded by abuse? I’m a mother now, and I try to imagine what it would be like to have my son shipped off without my consent. It would be torture. I imagine you would never recover. You might go on. But there would always be an open hole in you. The parents and grandparents suffered. The children suffered doubly. When a generation is disrupted so profoundly, the ripples of pain and displacement reverberate and recovery doesn’t happen in one generation. Erasing racism doesn’t happen overnight either. That’s the other part of the legacy that needs to be rewritten, and to heal. That’s the part we’re all responsible for, in what we say, and what we do. We are, after all, neighbours.

Wagamese will be reading at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival. If you haven’t read Indian Horse yet, go to our exceptional local bookseller, Dan at Armchair Books, and buy a copy for yourself. See you at the Festival!

Rebecca Wood Barrett is a freelance writer, teacher and producer. She’ll be moderating a panel of publishers and authors at the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival, called ”You Have a Manuscript, Now What?” (October 18th, 4 – 6pm at the Fairmont Chateau Whistler).

About the Whistler Readers and Writers Festival:

The Whistler Readers and Writers Festival started in 2001. Each year the three-day event brings world-renowned authors to Whistler for workshops, panel discussions and readings. The intimacy of this festival with its focus on events for both readers and writers makes it unique. For more information visit:

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