Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

“When your innocence is stripped from you, when your people are denigrated, when the family you came from is denounced and your tribal ways and rituals are pronounced backward, primitive, savage, you come to see yourself as less than human. That is hell on earth, that sense of unworthiness. That’s what they inflicted on us.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 191 pages
Read from January 1, 2019 to January 2, 2019

I picked up this book on a recommendation by a friend, though if I had started reading all the Canada Reads books just one year earlier I would have come across this moving story sooner. Indian Horse made the Canada Reads 2013 shortlist but was unfortunately voted off in the first round.

Indian Horse is an all-encompassing story that touches tragic issues related to the indigenous people in Canada. The story also has wide-reaching themes with its integral connection to hockey and the protagonist’s, Saul Indian Horse, struggles with childhood trauma and alcoholism. Saul’s past starts with his indigenous roots as a young child trying to escape the prying arms of the white man trying to forcefully place him and siblings in residential schooling. His family knows the woods and has this advantage but their luck does not last forever. After being pried away from the frozen and dead grip of his grandmother he is forced into a residential school where endures severe abuse. His only reprieve from the misery and loneliness of the school is through hockey. Saul shows promise as a talented hockey player at a young age but his native roots make him an outcast against the white hockey teams he plays against, despite being better than them. As Saul grows, hockey carries him through the toughest moments in his life but things start to turn sour as Saul becomes an adult and the hockey realm becomes more abusive and physical. Unable to deal with his past traumas and personal failures Saul turns to drink. The story opens with Saul at rock bottom with him coming to an understanding that if he wants peace he needs to tell his story.

Saul’s childhood is nothing short of traumatizing as the author details how Saul and many real indigenous people in Canada were treated during the horrific era of residential schooling in Canada. Physical and sexual abuse was rampant, leaving many of the children with irreparable trauma in which its no surprise that many did turn substance abuse as an outlet. Saul’s story is tragic but the ending is nothing short of inspiring. The writing is easy to read yet remarkably crafted. Richard Wagamese is a talented author that writes from the heart, his characters are dynamic and engaging and his plot and storylines are thoughtful and concise.

This book is for every Canadian, especially those who enjoy inspirational stories on overcoming adversity, hockey, or anything related to Canadian history. What makes this story all the more poignant is that Saul’s story represents so many indigenous children in Canada with the tragedy being that so many of them don’t get the peaceful ending that Saul did making it all the more important that their stories get shared.

The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong

This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all.

4/5 stars.
ebook, 304 pages.
Read from March 3, 2019 to March 9, 2019.

Lindsay Wong describes the Woo-Woo as a Chinese superstition that ghosts are the cause of bad things in your life, which unfortunately for her and mental-health-ridden family, meant an array of irrational behaviour followed by never seeking treatment. This book is in the Canada Reads 2019 shortlist after a few near misses in previous years so no doubt this book will be a fan favourite for the debates.

canada-reads-2019-joe-zee-defends-the-woo-woo
Joe Zee defending The Woo-Woo by Lindsay Wong during the debates taking place on March 25-28, 2019.

Lindsay and her siblings are first generation Chinese-Canadians. Her family came over from Hong Kong and settled in Vancouver which has a large Chinese population giving the city the appropriate nickname of Hongcouver. She lives in an upper-middle-class neighbourhood with her mother father, brother and sister, and for a short time her grandmother. Lindsay basis of daily dealings with her family and her life included things like swearing, name-calling, bribes with money, escaping life decisions and people with makeshift camping trips, and smothering bad feelings and “ghosts” with junk-food. Shouting matches, arguments, grudges and personal hang-ups are what Lindsay thought being a family was all about.

Despite her family having a comfortable income Lindsay wore old, dated clothes and showered once a week. Lindsay lacked the social skills to make friends but her aggression made her an excellent hockey player, an endeavour her father bribed her into to achieve some sort of Canadian-dream status.  Her father insisted that she was extremely stupid and fat as some messed up means of motivating her to achieve more along with a sick sense of dark humour. While her mother fell prey to the mental illness that plagued her own mother resulting in her being obsessed with ghosts and trying to protect her family from them. Her protection came in the form of insisting that her family never show any emotion as to not invite the ghosts in, terrorizing midnight wakings, lighting Lindsay’s feet and bedding on fire, day-long walks in shopping malls, and more.

Lindsay grew up in fear the Woo-Woo as she saw it slowly wreck her grandmother, her mother and eventually even her Aunt, whom she thought was safe. Without the means to empathize and deal with normal human situations in a healthy manner, Lindsay was in constant worry about her own mental state. Despite all this Lindsay managed to get into a university far from home where she was relieved to finally escape her family, only to find that the Woo-Woo seemed to have followed her there.

Even with these enormous hurdles to overcome, Lindsay seems to have found peace and understanding with her upbringing. Despite the dark and sometimes traumatizing events that Lindsay endured she approaches her story with a stoic and entertaining sense of dark humour. This is a trainwreck of an upbringing that you can’t help but sympathize with, as you berate yourself for laughing at the strangeness of it all. It brings awareness to the stigmas around mental illness and the barriers we still have to overcome, especially culturally, which healthcare systems could benefit from learning more about.

If you live in Vancouver, I would absolutely say this is a must-read. This is also a relevant book for those looking from some reprieve from their own families and mental health struggles.

The most moving part of this story comes from Lindsay finding the courage to write such an intimate memoir about her family, especially since she is writing from a standpoint of success in battling her inner Woo-Woo and family troubles. It’s a testament to the power of healing yourself and finding faith in yourself against the odds.