My brother was limp and hot and he felt thin in my hands. Empty. When we laid him on the spruce boughs in the tent he seemed to sink into them, as though the land were already reaching out and claiming him.
We took turns bringing him water, the old woman and I. The others stayed away. We could hear them talking by the fire, but my grandmother was too busy making teas and potions, using roots she’d found by searching the nearby bush, to pay them any mind. I could feel the chasm between the three of us and the others as if it were a living thing.
Wagamese creates tragedy in Ben’s death scene through the use of rich imagery. By describing the emptiness of Ben's body, Wagamese makes it clear to both Saul and the reader that he will not survive. Naomi’s desperate attempts to save him despite his hopeless condition show the depth of her love, love which becomes tragic because it is inevitably futile. At the same time, this scene foreshadows the conflicts which will destroy the family Saul had at Gods Lake. When Saul’s mother insists on taking Ben away from the lake for a Christian burial, Naomi’s resistance implicitly calls back to this moment, when the land seemed to reach out and claim him. By taking him away, they defy the will of the land Ben loved.
While Naomi uses all of her knowledge and tools to care for Ben, the rest of Saul’s family moves away to the fire. By describing the distance between them as a “chasm” like a “living thing,” Wagamese indicates that the separation has figurative as well as literal meaning. It feels like a chasm, wider than it really is, and it is living, with a force and power of its own. It will prove powerful enough to split the family forever.
He was six years old. He was from a people who had forged survival out of the bush as hunters, trappers, fishermen. That way of being was tied directly to the power they felt everywhere around them, and he’d been born to that, had learned it like walking. The nuns found him hanging from the rafters of the barn on a cold February morning. He’d wrapped his own hands behind his back with twists of rope before he’d jumped.
This passage describes the death of Arden Little Light, the boy who the nuns subject to public humiliation because he won’t use a handkerchief. While describing their cruelty as a way to emphasize the violence of the residential school system, Wagamese endows Arden with a deep nobility. By centering his power, contingent on his people and the land, the novel itself provides a counterweight to the dehumanizing punishments of St. Jerome’s. These lines suggest, through the rapid shift from describing Arden’s old life to his death, that the residential school itself was equivalent to death; that there was no life in between his loss of the bush and his suicide. Nevertheless, the proximity of the two lives in this quote also emphasizes the continuity from one to the other—the fact that Arden remembered his past up until his death, regardless of what the school did to him.
When they lay gasping on the grass, it was ourselves we saw fighting for air. We were Indian kids and all we had was the smell of those fish on our hands. We fell asleep that night with our noses pressed to our hands and as the days went by and the smell of those suckers faded, there wasn’t a one of us that didn’t cry for the loss of the life we’d known before. When the dozen of us cried in the chapel, the nuns smiled, believing it was the promise of their god that touched us. But we all walked out of there with our hands to our faces. Breathing in. Breathing in.
In this quote, Wagamese both describes the love “Indian kids” have for fishing, and uses metaphor to compare those kids to the fish they catch. Saul laments “the loss of the life we’d known before” just a few sentences after comparing himself and his peers to fish “fighting for air.” The language of death around their loss of culture suggests that their loss of their former lives was also a loss of life itself.
Nevertheless, they do still have “the smell of those fish on [their] hands.” Smell is the sense most closely linked with memory, and here the image of the smell of fish stands in for the presence of their past, despite the efforts of the school. Just as they leave the lake, but find that the smell persists, so even after leaving the bush, the memory of it remains. The slow fading of those memories is its own loss. At the same time, their presence is a source of strength. Although the nuns believe the children are looking towards the Christian god, their faith is really in memory, in the smell on their hands. The final lines of this passage, “Breathing in. Breathing in,” refer back to the metaphor comparing the children to the dying fish. Both are fighting for air, and for the children, recalling the memory of breathing is a way to survive, in opposition to believing in “the promise of their god.”
Father Leboutilier was standing at the open gate to our bench as I skated over, his face was red with excitement. He stopped me and put his hands on my shoulder pads.
“That was beautiful,” he said. “You were beautiful.”
I sat on the bench and basked in that. When I leaped back onto the ice, it was with determination to earn the Father’s praise again. There was no laughter from the crowd when I took the puck this time. Instead, they yelled at their team to stop me, to hit me, to crush me. But when the players tried I simply skated faster. No one could touch me. I scored twice more and made the passes that earned us another two goals and we won that game by a single goal. I was applauded as I left the ice, and in the dressing room my teammates gaped. I just offered a small grin, then bent to my skates and began to unlace them.
Father Leboutilier came and sat down beside me and leaned back against the wall with his legs thrown straight out in front of him. He put a hand on my back and patted me.
“Saul,” he said quietly, “the game loves you.”
I sat with the Father’s hand on my back, listening to the excited chatter of the team as they recreated the game. The game loves you, he’d said, and right there, right then, I loved it back.
This scene centers around Saul’s “friendship” with Father Leboutilier and the influence it had on his love for hockey. On the surface, the scene illustrates a simple relationship based on encouragement and instruction. The priest repeatedly compliments Saul’s play, which encourages him to perform better and live up to the praise. However, Wagamese also hints at the darker reality behind their friendship. Rather than enjoying the game for its own sake, Saul is dependent on Father Leboutilier’s opinion, “when I leaped back onto the ice, it was with determination to earn the Father’s praise again.” Saul first feels in love with the game, not on the ice, but when the priest announces that the game loves him.
Beyond this dependence, Wagamese depicts Saul as extremely conscious of the priest’s touch. Repeatedly during this short scene, he remarks on Father Leboutilier touching him, placing his hands on his back and shoulders. The frequency of the touches is notable, but not necessarily predatory. However, Saul’s constant awareness of them marks them as significant. They aren’t just casual touches, but something he remembers about the day as closely as the game itself. This sense that they are seared into Saul’s memory hints at the rape he can’t let himself remember until the end of the novel.
I was in the barn alone the next evening, practicing my shooting on the linoleum. I was so intent on the mechanics of my wrist shot that I missed the first few notes. But those that followed made me raise my head and listen. A voice shimmered through the evening air, and I walked to the door of the barn to see where it came from. Rebecca was standing in the rough grass of the Indian yard, her palms raised to the sky, and she was singing in Ojibway. It was a mourning song. I could tell that from the feel of the syllables. Her agony was so pure, I felt my heart ripped out of me. I stood crying in that doorway, offering what prayers I could for the spirit of her sister.
I never saw the knife. Not until the song was over. She knelt on the fresh-turned earth of her sister’s grave and slipped the knife from her coat and plunged the knife into her belly. As I ran to her, a whole crowd of kids burst from the school. She was dead when we got there, blood everywhere. We stood in a circle gazing down at her. No one said a word. No one could. But when someone began to sing the song Rebecca had sung we all joined in, the outlaw Ojibway rising into the air. When the song was over, we filed back into the school, past the nuns and the priests who’d gathered at the bottom of the stairs. None of us looked at them.
Up to this point in the novel, the story Saul is telling has been mostly linear, following the events of his life in order. This changes in Chapter 39, after he leaves the Marlboros, when he remembers Rebecca Wolf. In many ways, it is like the many stories of children who were killed at St. Jerome’s that Saul told while he was still recounting his time there. However, this story doesn’t end with the death of Rebecca’s sister, but with the way first she, and then the other students, responded to the violence. When the students mourn for her in their “outlaw Ojibway,” they assert the continuous presence of their culture. The story ends with the children walking back to the school past the nuns and priests, no one looking at them. In the context of Saul’s time on the Marlboros, it models what community can mean, and how, unified, the Indigenous children can decide where to look. The settler becomes the object of their gaze.
But it wasn’t a yearning for new geography that drove me—it was my tiredness of the old. The bush had ceased to be a haven. A vacant feeling sat where the beginnings of my history had once been. That part of myself was a tale long dead, one that held nothing for me. So I was heading out to create whatever history I could with muscle and will and no constraints. I was leaving the bush and the North behind. I didn’t think I needed them anymore. The echoes of those I’d travelled with slid into the trees I was leaving behind.
Saul doesn’t leave Manitouwadge because he needs work, he leaves because he wants to escape. His choice to go out on his own proves disastrous, as he soon slips into isolation and then alcoholism. Here, Wagamese emphasizes the rationale behind Saul’s strange choice. Like hockey, the bush had been a refuge for Saul: a place where he could feel protected from the bigotry of the rest of the world, and from his own demons. That sense of safety wasn’t inherent to either the game or the bush—it required something of Saul, too.
When Saul first arrived at St. Jerome’s, he described it as a black hole, sucking the light out of his life. By describing Saul’s internal world as “vacant,” Wagamese connects this scene back to the moment Saul arrived at St. Jerome’s, the place that first endeavored to steal his history. Saul conflates his personal story with the lost history of his people, and he abandons one with the other.
When he knelt down and cradled me in his arms, I felt no shame or fear. I only felt love. I wanted so much to be held and stroked. As he gathered my face in his hands and kissed me, I closed my eyes. I thought of my grandmother. The warmth of her arms holding me. I missed that so much.
“You are a glory, Saul.” That’s what he always told me. It’s what he whispered to me in the dim light of his quarters, what he said to me those nights he snuck into the dormitory and put his head beneath the covers. The words he used in the back of the barn when he slipped my trousers down. That was the phrase that began the groping, the tugging, the pulling and the sucking, and those were always the last words he said to me as he left, arranging his priestly clothes. “You are a glory, Saul.” Those were the words he used instead of love, and he’d given me the job of cleaning the ice to buy my silence, to guard his secret. He’d told me I could play when I was big enough. I loved the idea so much that I kept quiet. I loved the idea of being loved so much that I did what he asked. When I found myself liking it, I felt dirty, repulsive, sick. The secret morning practices that moved me closer to the game also moved me further away from the horror. I used the game to shelter me from seeing the truth, from having to face it every day. Later, after I was gone, the game kept me from remembering. As long as I could escape into it, I could fly away. Fly away and never have to land on the scorched earth of my boyhood.
The climax of Indian Horse comes when Saul remembers Father Leboutilier’s abuse. Wagamese describes the assault with vivid auditory and tactile imagery. In his recollection, Saul brings it out of the forgotten past and experiences the assaults as if they are happening to him in the present. The descriptive imagery also summons up visceral disgust in the reader, who experiences it along with Saul. Along with the shock of the scene, Saul’s sudden recollection reverberates through the novel as he realizes how it echoed through his entire past, the past he has been narrating until he left the New Dawn Centre. Like Saul, the reader is forced to look back on what came before and reinterpret it. For example, we now understand Saul’s relationship with hockey as rooted in a desire for refuge, rather than simply an inborn love for the game.
The moon hung in the sky like the face of a drum. As I watched, it became the shining face of a rink, where Indian boys in cast-off skates laughed in the thrill of the game, the smallest among them zooming in and out on outsized skates. I offered tobacco to the lake where everything started and everything ended, to the cliff that had made this the place of my people, and I offered my thanks aloud in an Ojibway prayer.
Despite the connection that Saul now understands between his trauma and his love for hockey, he still finds immense beauty and joy in the sport. When he returns to Gods Lake, he doesn’t try to go back to who he was when he last lived there, before school. Instead, he must reconcile himself to both the beginning and the end—to who he was then and who he is now. His vision of “Indian boys in cast-off skates” seems to be not a fantasy, but a memory from his time at the school, poor-quality equipment at all. Yet the memory is recontextualized within the lake, where he is surrounded by ancestors who would never have heard of hockey and never stepped foot inside a residential school. When Saul gives his thanks in Ojibway—the language prohibited at St. Jerome’s—he attests to the durability of the legacy of his people, to its capacity to contain many kinds of joy. His traditions, his ancestors, the places beloved of his people, are broad enough to make legible even unimaginable new worlds. When Saul returns to Manitouwadge and decides to coach young Indigenous hockey players, he seems to be inspired by this vision. His choice resonates not only with the laughter and joy he saw that day, but with the broader logic of beginnings and endings that it helps him understand. By teaching hockey, Saul carries on the legacy of his grandmother Naomi and unites his distant past, his future, and everything that came between.
“Were you...?” I asked, the words dwindling off into space. I looked at him and he kept his head down, clasping his hands together.
Then he looked at me placidly and nodded. “Yes,” he said. “Many times.”
I felt tears building and I pinched my lips together and gazed out the window. “Cost me a lot,” I said.
“It costs everything,” Fred said. “It bankrupts us in every way. The lucky ones rebuild. There’s a lot of those kids who never got that chance.”
“I went back there,” I said.
“I still do.”
“Every year. Just to lay tobacco down and try to find forgiveness.”
“Did you find it?”
He took a drink and set his cup down slowly. “It’s a long road,” he said.
“I don’t know if I can, you know? I don’t know if I even want to.”
“It’s part of it,” Martha said. “It took me a long, long time, and even now I don’t know if I’ve truly done it. More like I just live my life here, and it heals me. Time. Distance. Not thinking about it.”
“Did they rape everyone?” I asked.
There was a long silence. In the distance I could hear the sounds of the mill and a train. I waited and they both looked at the floor.
“It doesn’t have to be sexual to be rape, Saul,” Martha said.
“When they invade your spirit, it’s rape too,” Fred said.
I nodded. “That’s how I felt. Invaded.”
Fred and Martha Kelly are able to speak candidly with Saul about his trauma because their shared experiences give them a capacity for empathy. Rather than expressing shock or horror at Saul’s past, they share their own sorrow and connect it to his. This allows them to understand how Saul feels, which he acknowledges in the last line of this passage, “That’s how I felt. Invaded.” Beyond their own individual experiences, Fred and Martha suggest that his past is something every survivor of the residential schools shares, even those who were not sexually assaulted. This helps Saul feel less alone, more a member of his own community. It also acknowledges that men like Father Leboutilier were not black sheep, but rather integral to the assimilationist projected carried out at residential schools. Furthermore, by defining assimilation as rape, Indian Horse emphasizes that it is a form of violence.
I understood then that when you miss a thing it leaves a hole that only the thing you miss can fill.
Saul makes this remark when he returns back to the ice after years on the road and realizes how badly he missed playing hockey. However, the phrase applies broadly to Saul’s life, and to the many losses he endured. When he compares St. Jerome’s to a black hole, he also acknowledges that it sucks something out of his life and leaves nothing in its place. When he tried to turn to Father Leboutilier in place of his grandmother’s affection, he was met with assault; that hole could only be filled when he saw his great-grandfather Shabogeesick. After he abandoned his friends to work on the road, he tried to fill the hole left by their camaraderie through drink and strangers in bars, but this did nothing to alleviate his own emptiness—only coming home did. This realization might seem despairing, but it is hopeful within the circular logic of the novel, where beginnings can always be found again, although sometimes in a different form. When Saul returns to Gods Lake, he is able to find again what he has been missing, even though both it and him have changed irreparably with the passage of time.
Indian Horse Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Indian Horse is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
Wagamese's narrative links the soul of nature with the soul of Saul and his family. It is at God's Lake where Saul experiences a spiritual awakening at such a young age. He hears the trees whisper his name; he feels the mist in his bones; he hears...