Indian Horse

Indian Horse Summary and Analysis of Chapters 36-45


In the end, Saul agrees to join a professional team, but he decides to stay out his last season with the Moose, and the following summer, at Manitouwadge. In preparation for training with professional athletes, he works out every day with Virgil. When fall arrives, he’s still reluctant and nervous to leave for Toronto, especially because he’ll be staying with a white family, but Virgil encourages him. He tells Saul that he is like a brother to him, and stands by as his bus drives away.

Saul arrives in Toronto, and is immediately put off by the city—the absence of nature, the chaos of “speed, noise, and people.” He’s staying with an old Irish couple, the Sheehans, huge hockey fans who tell Saul he won’t be the first Native person to join the NHL. But at practice, Saul’s is the only brown face, and the white players ignore him. By the second day, Saul has figured out their rhythm and pushes into the fray, making a miraculous assist. Of the thirty players at the training camp, Saul is one of three selected for a professional team—the Marlboros.

He’s a great player, made even better by his newfound trust in the skill of his teammates, which allows him to make risky passes with the knowledge they’ll reach their target. But his skill can’t change the bigotry he’s surrounded by. His teammates are cold and distant, and the media characterizes his play along racist, stereotypical lines. The fans yell out slurs, and the opposing teams are especially violent against him. Finally, Saul snaps. He stops being stoic and begins to fight back. He becomes a “puck hog,” scoring his own goals rather than making passes. The Marlies coach tells Saul that he’s become a liability, and he gives Saul less and less time to play. After a game spent entirely in the stands, Saul gives up on the Marlies and heads home to Manitouwadge.

The story pauses as Saul remembers Rebecca Wolf, a girl he knew at St. Jerome’s. She arrived at the school with a little sister, who the nuns punish harshly for her timidity. When Rebecca tried to protect her, the nuns locked her up. While Rebecca was imprisoned in the basement, Katherine died in her sleep. When they finally told Rebecca, she went silent, then screamed. Finally, Saul watched as she walked out to the lawn and sang a song of mourning in her forbidden Ojibway tongue. Then she plunged a knife into her stomach. The other students sang a mourning song for her, ignoring the onlooking priests and nuns.

Saul gets back to Manitouwadge and tells a disappointed Virgil why he left. He resigns himself to working in the mills or the mines, and asks to rejoin the Moose. He gets a job in forestry, and is soon assigned to a logging camp in the bush. Saul loves the land, but the men he works with are tough, violent, heavy-drinking, and uncomfortable sharing space with an Indian. Saul keeps his distance, and in response, the men harass him, moving from verbal to physical abuse with no response. Then one day, a man challenges him to a fight. Saul unleashes the cold anger inside himself, and strangles him until he passes out, then punches him in the face as hard as he can. Terrified, the men never bother Saul again.

When Saul plays with the Moose, he’s still brilliant on the ice, but he’s angry too, regardless of whether he’s playing a white team or a Native one. He stops playing for the joy of the game, focusing instead on his next opportunity to fight. Eventually, his teammates stop speaking to him, and he knows his time with the team has come to an end. At the age of eighteen, he heads out to search for work on the road. Fred and Virgil try to stop him, but Saul is sure he’s ready for a change, that he’s already alone.

He says goodbye to the house in Manitouwadge and takes to the road, moving rapidly from one town to the next, wherever work takes him. At first, he enjoys being alone, but eventually he begins to miss the teasing and talk of his old teammates. To fill the hole, he starts going to bars. At first he just sits back and listens to other people’s conversations, but he quickly begins drinking along with them. He finds that he can join in and make up whatever stories he likes, encouraged by drink. Soon, he’s become a high-functioning alcoholic, able to work but unable to give up the way drinking soothes the rotting, angry feeling in the pit of his stomach. His addiction becomes one more reason to stay away from home.

Years later, he accidentally finds himself in Northern Ontario, the land where his family was working when Ben escaped from the school and found them. After a few weeks, Saul is unable to find any more work. Broke and exhausted, he begins drinking through the day. While he’s nearly passed out at the bar, a man sits down and tells him to wake up. He introduces himself as Ervin Sift and tells Saul to come home with him. There, Ervin nurses Saul through withdrawal, then gives him work, lodging, and free meals.


Saul has many parental figures throughout Indian Horse, but Virgil and his dead brother Benjamin are the only peer relationships that Wagamese devotes a lot of time to fleshing out. When Saul is recruited to the professional hockey league, it's Virgil who encourages him to join it. He believes in Saul’s potential partly because he sees himself in him, and he wants someone like them to break out of Manitouwadge and the limited opportunities there. Yet when Virgil calls Saul a brother, Saul immediately connects Virgil to Benjamin. A few paragraphs later, Saul says goodbye to Virgil. Although Virgil emphasizes that their parting isn’t final, Saul’s parting words suggest that he doesn’t imagine that they will ever reunite. Once again, Saul’s past (here, his loss of his brother) informs the way he conceptualizes the present.

When Saul begins playing for the Marlboros, he becomes the sole target of the racism once directed at the Moose as a whole. Wagamese emphasizes the important role language plays in asserting white power over Saul. The announcers interpret his every move on the ice along stereotypical lines. This refusal to see him as anything other than “an Indian” blunts the transformative power of hockey. Saul might be able to shape-shift on the ice, to see through the play, but he is seen as always the same racist caricature. His experience of the game thus becomes less about what he can see, and more about how he is seen.

The other major factor in Saul losing his love for the game is the complacency of his white teammates. Although the racist outside world encroached on them, the Moose still had camaraderie, brotherhood with each other. The Marlboros, however, see Saul in exactly the same way that the announcers and the fans do, understanding his personality, actions, and attitudes through a racist lens. They are more sympathetic to the opposition than they are to Saul, which shatters any alliance he feels to them on the ice. Saul’s skills made him best at collaborative play, where he would predict someone’s position and make a miracle pass. He starts hogging the puck because the racist world has now entered the ice, and he can’t outrun it.

Virgil is disappointed to see Saul back in Manitouwadge because he believes Saul deserves a better life than what he has. He fixates on Saul’s talent, his impressive performance during the season, and his potential to succeed in the NHL. He doesn’t understand that for Saul, what matters is the joy of the game, something he’ll never find playing in the NHL. Saul, meanwhile, is becoming more and more controlled by his anger, which has been impossible to shake off ever since he came back from Toronto. While Virgil sees the world, and Saul’s future, through hopeful eyes, Saul’s way of seeing the world is hemmed in by the violence he has survived. These different outlooks make Saul feel permanently severed from his old community, which is why he decides to leave Manitouwadge to work on the road.

However, by deciding to run away, Saul doesn’t do anything to confront the anger that made living in Manitouwadge impossible. That isn’t his goal—his goal is just escaping. As always, Wagamese emphasizes the impossibility of leaving the past behind. On the road, Saul remembers the Moose in the same way he remembered Naomi at St. Jerome’s. His alcoholism begins because he misses the past and wants a way to talk and be comfortable around people. Alcohol also makes storytelling possible for Saul. Wagamese is specific about Saul’s reasons for drinking because all these reasons illustrate the connection between his addiction and the other conflicts in the novel. In order to overcome addiction, Saul doesn’t just need to quit drinking, he needs to confront his past, find community, and tell his story.

It’s significant that Saul hits rock bottom while back in Northern Ontario, the place where he grew up. Once again, his present is haunted by his past; alcohol is a way to temper the pain of coming back home, to avoid thinking about what he lost, and, as we discover later, to keep not remembering what happened to him at St. Jerome’s. Ervin Sift rescuing Saul could be considered something of a “deus ex machina,” an unlikely, chance occurrence that helps move along the plot by solving an impossible problem—here, Saul’s alcoholism. However, this “chance” fits neatly into the thematic plot of the novel—the ideas Wagamese is presenting along with the story. Saul has been telling stories because he misses community, but he has been fabricating his stories and telling them while drunk because he wants to remain unnoticed. By seeing Saul as he is, Erv undercuts those unhealthy intentions by looking beyond Saul’s persona. This scene also illustrates the power of community; Saul needs someone else to come save him, not because Wagamese couldn’t think of a way for him to save himself, but because, in Indian Horse, salvation never happens in isolation. Saul is repeatedly rescued—by Naomi, by Fred Kelly, by Erv—because Wagamese is constructing a hero who derives power from community.