Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Reader's Diary #935- Richard Wagamese: Indian Horse

Earlier this week I'd gotten an important reminder about the dangers of Twitter. I was at a point in Richard Wagamese's Indian Horse where I was frustrated by how perfect the titular character Saul Indian Horse was presented. Just infallible. Supernatural hockey ability. Never acted on anger. Troubles just rolled off his back. No one's this perfect, I wanted to vent. And so I did. On Twitter. I forget what I said initially. Something along the lines of "Saul Indian Horse is too annoyingly perfect," which by Twitter screw-ups is far from career ending public shame, but I still had to remove the tweet a mere hour or so later. If I'd only been more patient, I'd have seen that Saul was going to screw up. Furthermore, if I'd only had a better memory, it told me right on page two that he became a "hard core drunk." I guess I got so caught up in the flashback that I'd completely forgotten it even was framed as a flashback. Anyway, no damage done, except that anyone who'd read the book and who managed to see the original tweet must think me a bit of an idiot.

 In my defense, I still think for the bulk of the book Saul is a little too squeaky clean, not to mention a little too unbelievably good at hockey. I'm reminded somewhat of all the promos for the next Superman movie. Superman's going through a bit of an identity crisis. It seems modern audiences want their superheroes with a bit more grit. Fundamentally good, yes, but with a bit more edge. Someone who makes mistakes from time to time. Someone not so black and white. But Superman's always been a bit of a goody goody and those occasional falls from grace are good for quick entertainment. Remember when Christopher Reeve's Superman went on a depressed drinking binge in Superman III? Probably, since I just reminded you of it, but it certainly didn't change our overall image. Batman's the dark knight. With all of that boy-scoutian history, Superman's still seen as the good ol saviour of the universe— yawn. With Saul Indian Horse, I think there was too much build up. As if this would make his fall from grace more tragic. Instead, I think it just made Saul more unbelievable. Just once, in his earlier years, couldn't he have at least a thought of stabbing one of his tormentors in the eye with a fork?

I also found the book tried too hard to be important. If this were a movie, we'd laugh at the all-telling Oscar moments. In other words, no one could accuse Wagamese of being too subtle. Whenever the story veered into self-help or a history lesson, I found myself removed from the plot and it slowed down my pace. Not that his messages weren't important, I just think they would have been more effective if they weren't so forced. Without those direct teaching moments, I was rather enjoying the story.

I also enjoyed the style of Wagamese's writing. His sentences were succinct but the descriptions were rich in imagery. It's a quick read, but depending on your sensitivities to serious topics (racism and abuse are two major themes), not an easy read from an emotional standpoint.

Without having finished the other contenders yet, I can't predict how it will fare in next month's debates.


Jules said...

I've only read Away, and I'm about 3/4 of the way through February so I can't exactly say what will happen. From what I've seen this is the "best book ever" and it is one that "every Canadian needs to read". But I'm not sure if people are saying that because it's a well written book or because the plot parallels with what is happening with the idle no more protests and people are trying to look smart and aware of what is currently happening.

From previous winners and previous Canada Reads Debates, I'm not sure this one will fair well. It may be a great book, but being a great book doesn't matter - what matter's is how well the debaters do at convincing the others to vote or not vote for their book. Look at what happened to Essex County. (I didn't read this one, but they all teamed up against the book and tore it apart even if it was a readable book.)

John Mutford said...

Jules: My knee jerk reaction to the Idle No More comment was that the only thing this book has in common with that movement is that the main character is from a First Nation. But when I take the time to consider it, I guess I can see some parallel and similar issues. However, being topical and being well-written aren't one and the same. Not to say Indian Horse isn't both of those things, but it's certainly up for debate.

Jules said...

To clarify a bit, was more of what I've seen people mention on the webs. I haven't read it yet, but what I've seen is people mentioning it should win because of the idle no more stuff. Whether the two are related doesn't get mentioned, just that people expect it to win because of it.

gypsysmom said...

Well I've read Indian Horse and The Age of Hope plus, a long, long time ago, Two Solitudes. Indian Horse is far and away the most engaging story of the three. I still have to read Away and February but I'm really rooting for Indian Horse to win. I think Indian Horse is the book "every Canadian must read".

Barbara Bruederlin said...

I wonder if your arguments will come up in the ensuing Canada Reads discussions? Perhaps not your exact tweet, but you never know.

Perogyo said...

Mary Sues in literature can definitely grate. I would like to still read Indian Horse though.

Anonymous said...

I've just finished Indian Horse; a review is in the works. I too thought the hero was a bit too good to be true; I zoned out on the hockey detail after the first episode, though I liked the descriptions of Saul's vision of the game as a series of spaces and ways to move through them and anticipate where they would open up.
The relatively fast recovery from addiction was a bit unbelievable; but of course Saul *is* special; we already knew that.
Wagamese spins a very readable tale, and I liked many parts of this story very much, stylistically speaking. I must admit that I felt just a little dsappointed by the revelation about Father Boutilier near the end. Enough clues wre dropped early on that I wasn't at all surprised, but it would have been more interesting - IMO - to have a residential school child who hadn't experienced that particular degredation. Maybe. Just a thought.
To separate the topic (First Nations, residential schools) from the debate on whether this is a "good book", imagine that the scenario is something completely different. Let's imagine these adjustments. A Tibetan school girl who ends up in a Chinese boarding school; her special skill is, say, drawing. She is rescued by a family of art lovers, and gets her shot at fame in the art world. (Totally pulling examples out of the air.)
Would we still be all, "Oh wow, what a hugely important book", or would we just say, "Yes, good read, nice diversion, thought provoking as a bonus. Nicely done."
I think the second sums up my response to Indian Horse.
Should every Canadian read this book? Hmmm...
I do have a bit of an issue with it as a "regional" choice for BC & the Yukon. Though the author is now resident in BC, he is an Ojibway from Ontario, and Indian Horse is set in Eastern Canada. When I heard about hte book originally, that it was about a hockey prodigy coming out of a residential school, I assumed it had a local (ie. BC or the Yukon) setting - we have our share of such dismal history right here in our home region. As all of the other regional finalists have settings in their own areas, I am a bit miffed that our areas misses out on that. Just because an author now lives somewhere, does that automatically make him a representative of his adopted home? If Wagamese moved to, say, France and wrote about his native Ontario, would he be seen as a French writer?
Anyway - I enjoyed your thoughts on Indian Horse, John. Seems like we agree on key points.

John Mutford said...

Jules: In the past there hasn't been much of a correlation between what book the public has wanted to win Canada Reads and the actual winner, so I'm predicting it'll win the public vote only.

Gypsysmom: I'll write up my own predictions and choices in the next couple of weeks, but interestingly I think it'll be between the 2 books you haven't read yet.

Barbara: They've been getting a lot of Twitter comments this year, so I imagine some of that will enter into the discussion.

Perogyo: I've never heard that term before. After looking it up, I can't wait to use it myself!

Leavesandpages: Yes, I too thought it would have been more interesting to have Father Boutilier to have been a decent human being. I also questioned why it was the prairies and north choice but I doubt that'll come up in discussion. In the earlier years of the debates, whenever a book was accused of not being "Canadian enough" or whether or not the author's birthplace was relevant. Whenever such discussions came up, they were always brushed aside and anyone who made such comments were pretty much made to feel ridiculous. So, I think there's a parallel with the regionalism question. Though to further your point, why isn't MacLennan's Two Solitudes considered an Atlantic Provinces book if he was by birth a Nova Scotian? I know it's set in Quebec, but as you pointed out, Indian Horse is set in Ontario and that didn't seem to matter.

Perogyo said...

I love the Mary Sue Litmus test.

John Mutford said...

Perogyo: Though the test is aimed at writers developing their own characters, and so, there were some I couldn't answer, Saul Indian Horse still scored high as a Mary Sue. Great test! Thanks for sharing.