Richard Wagamese on the changing story of Indian Horse

RicahrdWagamese.jpg We asked each of the Canada Reads authors to share a "story behind the story" with us. Today, Richard Wagamese reflects on how Indian Horse changed in the process of rewriting to become "a more Canadian story."

Olympian and champion wrestler Carol Huynh is defending Indian Horse during the Canada Reads debates February 11-14.



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I originally wrote Indian Horse as a sort of "Shoeless Joe does hockey" novel. When I sat down, I envisioned Saul as a product of residential school who finds release through hockey much as he does in the final version of the story. However, magic realism played a huge part in the first draft.

When Saul discovers the game, he also discovers that his great-grandfather's vision has passed onto him. He can literally "see" what happens in the game before it occurs and it is this extraordinary ability that allows him to become a phenomenon. As he gives more and more of himself to his mystical skill he is transported out of the residential school and into the utter love of the game.

The storyline where he becomes a member of the Manitouwadge Moose remains the same. He eventually does get scouted for Major Junior A. He plays with the Toronto Marlies and sets the league on fire. But he only sticks around for 11 games. I chose that number because that's the exact number of games hockey's first Native player, Fred Sasakamoose, skated for the Chicago Blackhawks.

Saul retires to the bush. He lives alone far away from the game. But the man who scouted him for Major Junior A is on the planning team for the 1972 Canada-Soviet Summit Series. He wants to put a Native face on Team Canada and even though they could have had Reggie Leach, the scout sells organizers on using Saul. Their plan is to let him skate a couple of shifts in game two.

But as we know, the Soviets shellacked Team Canada in game one and Saul never gets the chance to play against them. But as he watches Team Canada practice he's wearing his jersey with the number 13 on it and meets Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak in the stands. They talk about how they were both highly touted young phenomenons. When Saul says it is a pity they could not play against each other, Tretiak challenges him to a secret game of one-on-one.

They play a game of 13. A goal or a save is a point and the player with the highest score is the winner. I wrote that part of the story as though it happened in a dreamy sort of slow motion. I think it was my best hockey writing. It's that contact with Tretiak that sends Saul on the journey he undertakes in the final version of Indian Horse. But that titanic battle with Tretiak was the original story's centre and it's still in my mind as a short story sometime in the future.

But stories have minds of their own sometimes. This one told me that there was a harder core that needed to be told. It told me that the residential school needed to become more of a foundation and that the dream-scape story of going one-on-one with Tretiak didn't serve its needs. What did serve its needs were the stories of Saul's early years before residential school, as he watched the dissolution of his traditional life and his family life.

Also, the stories from the school itself let the book become more harrowing, darker and more frank. I got a better idea of why Saul would seek escape in the game and why his great-grandfather's vision would be such an important element in the story. He became more real without the crutch of magic realism and the story became a story of loss and redemption and one that hit Canadians in their emotional centre.

What was needed was not a magic realist novel about hockey and an improbable encounter. What was needed was an emotive and powerful story about the effect of residential schools on a people.

In the end, Indian Horse became a more Canadian story than it was in its first incarnation. As a writer you need to always have an ear to what the story itself is telling you. You have to be open to completely changing track if that's what it asks of you. You have to learn to write for the story's sake. In doing so, the power of the story transcends your own best thinking and becomes what it needed to become all along. Story for story's sake. Learning that is the hardest trick in becoming a writer.





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