Indian Horse by Richard Wagamese

In 2011, my first novel, The Bone Cage, was a finalist in CBC’s national book program called Canada Reads. NHL celebrity Georges Laraque defended The Bone Cage in the debates that aired on Jian Ghomeshi’s Q. The whole thing was an incredible thrill – especially my moment on stage at the Toronto launch. There I stood between (gorgeous) Georges Laraque and (very handsome) Jian Ghomeshi, while Jian insisted “I am not short!” and Georges and I looked down and replied “Actually, you kind of are.” The whole thing was – to put it simply – so freaking fun!

At the end of 2012, I had a brief (very exciting) moment of thinking I might get to relive the entire exhilarating experience, this time with my second novel, The Canterbury Trail.

In 2013, Canada Reads has gone regional with the “Turf Wars.” At the end of 2012, CBC Books held a public vote to determine ten books for each of the five regions. My ski-town novel miraculously made the top-ten list for the BC/Yukon region, standing in the company of some of my favourite Western Canadian novels (Obasan, Monkey Beach, Swamp Angel, One Good Hustle). In the following weeks as the public voted the lists of ten down to five, CBC’s official bloggers made bold and generous predictions for my crazy mountain-culture novel, and I couldn’t help getting my hopes up – imagining myself taking a second turn on the wild Canada Reads ride and wondering what CBC listeners would make of my (sometimes vulgar) story filled with pot cookies, mushroom tea and a relentless obsession with the snow conditions.

Alas, The Canterbury Trail did not make the final five. However, I am thrilled with both the book and the celebrity representing our region. Ever since the release of the top ten lists, I have said that Indian Horse would be my choice if I had a chance to be a celebrity defender. I can’t wait to see how our region’s celebrity, my old friend Carol Huynh, champions this essential story when Canada Reads airs in February.

Here are a few of the reasons I expect Indian Horse to win Canada Reads 2013:

The Survivor-style format of Canada Reads works in Indian Horse’s favour. Who would dare kick this book off any Canadian island? No celebrated Canadian would be jerk enough to say, on national radio no less, “Nah, Canada doesn’t need to learn about residential schools. That kind of awareness is unimportant.” Indian Horse is one book Canadians must read. Edmonton writer Wayne Arthurson told me that his father lived in a residential school and never talks about his experience. “After reading Indian Horse,” says Wayne, “I finally understand my father.” With this tale, Wagamese leads readers through the full gamut of emotional responses. I lived Saul Indian Horse’s denial. His coming realization was a punch in the gut that I needed. Indian Horse should be required reading in Canada’s high schools because it teaches us a horrific part of our history, one that requires our attention. Most importantly, Indian Horse does not provide a bland intellectual understanding of the legacy of residential schools, in the way that a textbook might. Rather, Wagamese delivers his lesson straight to the heart.

But I seem to be implying that Indian Horse is necessary medicine: it must, therefore, taste awful. Not so. Reading this book is not a chore. Wagamese fills Indian Horse with beauty and poetry and humour and love. He also fills it with HOCKEY! It’s this detail that should clinch Indian Horse a win in the 2013 throw down. Hockey books fare well in Canada Reads’ history. Take Paul Quarrington’s King Leary, which won the 2008 debate in the hands of Dave Bidini. Our country’s favourite sport should be an even bigger sell this year; with the NHL lockout, Canadians need their fill of hockey. I’m betting we get it in the last book standing in Canada Reads 2013.

(As a more serious aside, at the 2012 Women’s Hockey World Championships in Vermont, I participated in a panel about contemporary hockey literature. The panel was called “Our Game,” and addressed the question: whose game is it? Indian Horse poses that same crucial question, but in relation to race rather than sex. If you don’t think that’s a good question now, read the book. You will.)

I’m as excited about the BC/Yukon defender as I am about the book. Carol Huynh, two-time Olympic wrestling medalist, knows her way around a competition. My brother, Justin Abdou, coached Carol during her time at SFU. My sister-in-law, Olympic wrestler Lyndsay Belisle, was Carol’s long-time training partner, rival and friend. Not coincidentally, my fictional wrestler (Digger in The Bone Cage) shares a hometown with Carol. I have seen Carol on a wrestling mat. She can defend herself against the world’s very best. A fierce competitor paired with an unbeatable book: I like it!

I can’t wait to see the results.

Accessibility and readability continue to be big topics of discussion around Canada Reads. The book that wins should be a book for everyone – not a read that appeals only to hard-core book geeks or to head-in-the-clouds intellectuals. Indian Horse works in that regard. It’s deceptively simple. The chapters are short. The story is compelling. Wagamese is, above all else, a gifted storyteller. Readers today have short attention spans. All it takes is one lull in the action to send them racing for Facebook, Twitter or YouTube. Wagamese allows no such lull. Indian Horse holds readers’ attention fast from the first sentence to the last. Soon, it will be holding the attention of all Canadians, as it should.

There it is. I’m putting my vote fully behind the British Columbia/Yukon representative. Go, Carol Huyhn! Go, Richard Wagamese! Go, Indian Horse!