Review: Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

Indian Horse
Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“‘They don’t hate you, Saul.’
‘Well, what, then?’
‘They think it’s their game.’
‘Is it?’
I could hear the crack of our tires in the frost on the road. ‘It’s God’s game,’ he said.
‘Where’s God now, then?’ I asked.”

Incredible story.

I was worried that the combination of residential school experience with a young man’s love of hockey was going to be too much – too Canadian. I was wrong. This worked, so very well. Wagamese reminds us all that no matter how different we may be (or appear to be) as individuals or as cultures, underneath we are still the same, driven by the same needs and desires.

This ought to be on required/suggested reading lists in high schools across Canada.

“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.”

Annabel by Kathleen Winter

annabelWayne is growing up with a secret that he doesn’t fully understand, and secrets are hard to keep in small, remote towns where everyone knows your business. A baby is born in Labrador in 1968, a baby who by all appearances is both boy and girl at once. A quick decision is made, the child is christened as Wayne, and despite the concoction of pills and hormones he is treated with, something is never quite right.

As a confused young child, he doesn’t understand why his likes and desires – preferring synchronized swimming to hockey, or playing ‘house’ with a neighbour’s daughter instead of building a fort – aren’t the same as his friends, and are embarrassing to his father.  He is raised as a boy in a man’s world, but has no interest in his father’s life of hunting and trapping. Like all teenagers, and yet many times more problematic, he struggles to make friends, to fit in.

Wayne’s mother is never happy with her husband’s decision to raise the child as a boy. She loves her son, yet mourns her daughter. Her friend, the midwife and only other person to know truth about Wayne, secretly christens the child Annabel, in memory of the daughter she lost years before. Kathleen Winter has done an incredible job with the creation of Wayne/Annabel, in drawing the reader in to feel his angst, pain and gender confusion. His is such a heartbreaking story, but not without its own beauty and sense of hope.

This novel was mesmerizing. I wasn’t sold on it based on the book jacket or marketing summaries. Having read “Middlesex” (Jeffrey Eugenides) a few years back I guess I thought a novel about a hermaphrodite was already done, nothing to get excited over. I’m embarrassed to say it sat on my shelf unread for almost two years. But consistently, I heard rave reviews from people whose opinions on books I take very seriously. I knew I had to read it, and so finally did.

I have joined the ranks of the rave reviewers. This book was excellent.

Hardcover: 320 pages
Publisher: House of Anansi Press Inc.; 1st Edition edition (May 31 2010)
ISBN-10: 0887842364
ISBN-13: 978-0887842368

The Call of the Wild by Jack London

The-Call-of-The-WildBuck is snatched away from his easy life on a California ranch and thrown with little training or ceremony into the brutal life of a sled dog in the Canadian north. Here, he must learn to protect himself from cruel treatment by both men and other dogs, as he slowly ‘remembers’ his  ancestry as a wild beast. It is also here, in this harsh landscape, that he learns to love.

Before I write anything else, I need to say: I did not know this book was about a dog. That makes me sound so stupid. I mean, I knew there was a dog. There is a dog on the cover, even. I guess I just thought it was about a person and their dog. I was confused for the first few pages, then caught on to the fact that Buck was not human.

Aside from reading Black Beauty as a girl (and rereading it, multiple times) I generally don’t do books about animals. They just don’t appeal to me. I could possibly be tempted by a cat book, but even that sounds too cliché. I like my books to be about people, and more often than not, fictional people.

That now out of the way, I have to say I really enjoyed the book, despite and possibly more-so because of its perspective. This story could not have been told with a human protagonist. This is the other side of the North, and what humans have done there. Buck was there only to work and stay alive. He had no desire for gold or wealth, no longing for the comforts of the south. Setting the story around Buck allows the reader to see the north without human ambition getting in the way.

It was a short book, and an easy read. Still, it was beautiful. Poetic, even. Which was fabulous for a winter weekend where I was mostly confined to my couch with a head-cold.

But now I can’t help but think a little bit more would have been nice. More context. Where did the natives come from, and why did they attack three presumably innocent travellers? Why were the dogs traded so often – was this common practice, or bad luck? Plus numerous other small questions that came up while I was reading. Of course, the point may well have been that Buck did not know the context, and so the reader will not either?

A ‘dog-person’ may have a better perspective on this, but while I found Buck’s transformation fascinating, and hauntingly beautiful, I did not completely buy it. From content estate pet sleeping by the fire to wild dog roaming with the wolves in the span of a few years? Seems unlikely… but damn it makes a great story.

Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; First Edition edition (July 1, 1990)
ISBN-10: 0486264726
ISBN-13: 978-0486264721

The Sweet Girl by Annabel Lyon

Daughter to Aristotle, Pythias is intelligent, curious and stubbornly independent  also rather unfortunately, she is a girl – a condition which blocks her from the schools, books and debates she craves. Her privileged societal status means that her quirky and at times shocking interests (dissections! bird skeletons! swimming!) are tolerated by her family and those that surround them, though barely.

When the death of Alexander the Great results in her family’s exile, Pythias must help guide her ageing father in keeping them safe, fed and sheltered. There are many offering help: male and female, rich and poor, even the gods and goddesses. Pythias quickly discovers that her wit, beauty and female charms are both an asset to be wielded and a huge risk for all involved.

Always a fan of historical fiction, I greatly enjoyed reading The Sweet Girl. Yet I am somewhat embarrassed to admit I don’t really know if I properly understood what was happening at all times, what Lyon’s intent or message was. The writing style was … for lack of a better descriptor: dense. There were snippets of magical realism, yet as it wasn’t carried through the whole narrative it was a struggle to realize where the fantasy began and ended. I wasn’t 3/4 though the novel when I had already decided I was going to reread this in the next year or two, to fully grasp the meaning.

That may sound like a criticism (technically, yes it is) but I will say I look forward to rereading it. Pythias was a fascinating character. I have read very little from this period and there was much to absorb and learn of the culture and norms of the day.

Well worth a read, but be sure to allow yourself the time to take it all in.

Long-listed for the 2012 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Random House Canada (Sep 18 2012)
ISBN-10: 0307359441
ISBN-13: 978-0307359445

A Good Man by Guy Vanderhaeghe

Wesley Case, born into a rich and privileged but ultimately broken home, is desperate to escape his past, but turns as both a soldier and a Mountie only increase his shame and his father’s fury. Now, Case has turned diplomat/spy, as the unofficial go between for the commanders of two Western frontier fortresses on the Canada-US border, where he falls in love with Ada Tarr, the wife of the town solicitor, and thus incurs the ire of Michael Dunne – a hired thug with his own dreams of winning Mrs. Tarr’s heart.

Set in 19th century Saskatchewan and North Dakota, A Good Man is the third novel in Vanderhaeghe’s I, a series of books linked not by character but by theme – the decline of the so-called Wild West and the early and uneasy relations between Canada and the US.

A Good Man has everything a good Western novel should: cowboys & Indians, the ‘noble’ Mountie (and a crew of not-so-noble as well),  soldiers, widows, thugs, and a touch of romance. Thankfully this time it is a romance I can get behind. While I loved Vanderhaeghe’s previous novels, The Englishman’s Boy and The Last Crossing, I found the ‘love’ story in the latter highly disappointing.  Less of a love story than a ‘girl is down on her luck so long she finally settles for the old man who has been badgering her to marry him since page 3’ kind of story. Wesley and Ada’s relationship was touching and Dunne’s obsession with her was an interesting mix of sympathetic and creepy.

But lest I make it seem that the best part of the novel was the romance, it must be noted that aside from Case & Dunne, the most intriguing character was the Sioux chief, Sitting Bull. The storyline begins not long after Sitting Bull’s victory at Little Bighorn, and everyone on either side of the border is living in fear of the Sioux. It has been many years since I studied Western History so whether Vanderhaeghe’s version of his character is accurate or not I am not equipped to say. He is depicted as a cunning adversary, commanding, intelligent, and political, and also as a family man, grieving the loss of his son and genuinely concerned for the health and safety of his family and his tribe.

This was the perfect sort of historical novel. I felt a simultaneous pride and shame for the history of my nation, but finished with a desire to know more and understand better. Well worth any reader’s time, I hope to see this novel turn up in a Canada Reads list sometime. It is just he sort of novel every Canadian should read.

Longlisted for the 2011 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Hardcover: 480 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; 1st Edition edition (Sep 13 2011)
ISBN-10: 0771087403
ISBN-13: 978-0771087400

 

Kin by Leseley Crewe

When David and Annie first meet their new neighbour Lila they are children; it is 1935 in Cape Breton and they are among the only families in their home of Glace Bay not feeling the extreme crunch of the Depression. Too young to understand the disadvantages of her background they only know that she is different, and that they are drawn to her, and they immediately adopt the orphaned Lila as their ‘kin’ and begin a complex weave of relationships that Crewe follows from childhood to old age, in Round Island in 2011.

I am a Cape Bretoner, and a history buff. My grandparents and their siblings grew up on the island (granted – the other side of the island) in the same time period. Their day-to-day lives could have been very similar. I was very excited to see this book show up in my mailbox, and could not wait to read it.

I have never read Lesley Crewe before. I actually have one of her other novels, but it is in my ever-growing ‘to-be-read’ pile. So I had no idea what to expect. Still, if you’ll forgive the contradiction, this was not what I expected. I somehow thought it would be lighter, more of a feel-good, down-home romance-y story. The cover was pretty. The title suggests happy family connections. All of that was there, but there was more. Far from dark, Kin was still not a light easy read. Its characters were complex, the action unexpected.

Kin follows three generations of families through more than seven decades in and around industrial Cape Breton, and as far away as Halifax and Montreal. The cast of characters is long, but it is the first three – Annie, David and Lila that the plot centres around. I loved Annie through and through, as I expect I was supposed to. Even her frustrating choices were completely understandable. And I fell in love with Henry right along with her. Actually, much quicker than she did.  I won’t ruin the story for you, but I do want to say I was disappointed with how her story ended. (It seemed abrupt, and didn’t fit the rest of the story well. Perhaps that’s just me? I’d love to hear what other readers think.)

David and Lila were harder to deal with. I struggled to understand their relationship mostly because it was so believable; it’s the hopeless childhood love story we have all seen time and again in various forms: full of passion and chemistry but little substance, and if not given the chance to mature, doomed for failure. Numerous times I wanted to throw the book across the room as they made their heartbreaking decisions.

Kin did a fabulous job of capturing the ties of family and friendship in a small community, while also portraying how these ties can be limiting and destructive. It was engaging and at times humourous. If there is a criticism, I think it could have ended quicker – not earlier in time, but just with less detail. Near the end it felt like Crewe was desperate to wrap up all the little details, but I like to have at least a few open to my imagination. (I feel like I say this a lot. If I ever do get around to writing a book, someone kindly remind me of this and make sure I wrap it up efficiently.) Still, I greatly enjoyed the story and will be moving her other novels up in my ‘to-be-read’ list.

Paperback: 416 pages
Publisher: Nimbus Publishing (Sep 4 2012)
ISBN-10: 1551099225
ISBN-13: 978-1551099224

Sanctuary Line by Jane Urquhart

Liz Crane lives a solitary (if not lonely life) on what remains of her family’s Southern Ontario fruit farm; she spends her days as an en entomologist studying monarch butterfly migrations, and the rest f her time haunted by family catastrophes: the long ago disappearance of her Uncle Stanley, and the more recent death of her cousin Mandy while serving in Afghanistan with the Canadian Army.

Liz reproaches herself for not understanding her cousin better, for not sympathizing with her destructive and consuming affair with a married senior officer. She has isolated herself in the house they once shared, reading her cousin’s poetry books and reliving long forgotten memories. The process brings much more back to her, including her uncle’s disappearance, the strained family relationships, and her own first love – the son of migrant farm workers.

The crux of the novel is the reason for her uncle’s disappearing, and while I won’t reveal what it was, I will say that I had guessed it early on, which took much of the anticipation out of the reading. Yet I still very much enjoyed the book. The characters were well crafted, their actions and motives believable. I also (much to the chagrin of my book club friends) have a thing for novels about biologists, novels in which the author seems to share my fascination for how society mirrors nature, how human relations are not always so different from their animal counterparts.

I did find – as someone who would have had little patience for Mandy’s love-life myself – that this subplot was least interesting to me, and at times felt forced. I was far more interested in the family history, the past loves and losses, and of course – the butterflies. Yet Urquhart brought this around in the end in a satisfying if perhaps implausible way. The romance that sounded hopeless and desperate may have been so, but it also had its own beauty and passion.

Sanctuary Line is a reflection on migration: human, and insect. Read it for a touching story, for interesting use of metaphor, but do not look for a happy ending.

Hardcover: 288 pages
Publisher: McClelland & Stewart; First edition (August 31, 2010)
ISBN-10: 0771086466
ISBN-13: 978-0771086465