Saul Indian Horse introduces himself as a member of the Fish Clan, an indigenous people from northern Ontario. Saul is a patient at the New Dawn Centre, an alcohol treatment center run by other Fish Clan members. Saul recalls a time when the Fish Clan people talked in terms of myths. However, now they have all been assimilated into white culture. The Centre requires people to tell their stories, but Saul refuses—he would rather write his story. Saul reveals he is a seer who has been spending his whole life trying to recover his gift.
Saul recalls how his family earned the name Indian Horse. His great-grandfather, a shaman named Shabogeesick or Slanting Sky, introduced the horse to the Ojibway after bringing one back from another area. Slanting Sky taught the clan how to use the horse but also warned that its presence signaled that a great change would come that would “scorch” all their lives.
Saul describes parts of his childhood in the late 1950s. He tells how two of his siblings—Rachel and Benjamin—were kidnapped by whites and brought to local schools, a common practice then. Saul’s mother, Mary, never recovers from the loss. Naomi, Saul’s grandmother, moves their family further inland to keep them safe. Saul’s father, John, tries to teach a young Saul English, but Naomi protests. Instead, she teaches Saul the traditional stories and myths about their tribe over campfires at night.
Saul continues to reflect on his life. Saul’s parents begin drinking heavily. The family moves from town to town looking for work. For a while, all they can find is scrap work cutting down trees by hand for local mills. Eventually, John finds steady work in a town called Redditt. For a while, the family has enough food and even a wood stove for their tent. Saul’s body improves and becomes stronger, and John begins drinking less.
Miraculously, twelve-year-old Benjamin returns to his family, having escaped school. A seven-year-old Saul notices how Benjamin’s behavior seems strangely grown-up and that Benjamin now has a bad cough. Naomi immediately realizes Benjamin has tuberculosis. She insists they move to God’s Lake, an area deep in the territories promised to their family through a vision Saul’s grandfather had. There, Naomi argues, they can live in peace and Benjamin can heal in the fresh air and sun.
The family reaches God’s Lake, where they settle and harvest rice. Benjamin’s health seems to be improving. One day, Saul has a vision while out walking alone. He sees a group of clan people, laughing and singing by the river. The vision changes to night, and he sees a man singing, and hears a wolf cry out. Suddenly the vision turns to morning again, and Saul is above the river. He watches as an avalanche of boulders crushes the people below. Saul turns around to see his grandmother, Naomi, and begins to cry. Later, he realizes the people were his ancestors.
Saul reflects on life at God’s Lake. Benjamin and Saul learn how to harvest rice and make rice braids, special braids that identify a family like a family crest. Naomi recites Fish Clan traditions and stories to the boys over fires and teaches them that “Creator” has blessed them with all their rice. Saul’s mother and aunt, who went to white schools, get annoyed with Naomi and argue she’s being blasphemous. Saul doesn’t understand these arguments, but he knows he feels good doing chores and living at God’s Lake. Benjamin eventually becomes run down from working in the rice beds. He has a nasty coughing fit one day and is dead by the next morning. Saul notices that only he and Naomi bothered to tend to Benjamin in his last hours.
Naomi begins preparing a traditional burial for Benjamin, but Mary stops her. She insists Benjamin have a proper burial with a priest. She blames Naomi for taking them to this “forsaken place.” Bitter, Mary entreats the rest of the family to go back to town with Benjamin’s body, but Naomi and Saul stay behind.
Naomi realizes the adults won’t be returning and that she and Saul must move on. She tells Saul they’ll freeze soon if they stay. They head toward Minaki, where her nephew Minoose lives.
Naomi and Saul load their canoe with their remaining supplies. The weather is so cold that it cuts against their skin. Naomi is forced to cut canvas from their tent to make shawls and boots to keep warm. Saul listens to Naomi sing as she paddles. He thinks her songs are prayers and hopes they are. On the fourth day of paddling, both Naomi and Saul doze off in the canoe, and it crashes against a rock. They watch as their broken canoe bobs down the river with all their supplies. Ever resourceful, Naomi immediately begins building them a makeshift dwelling with sod and branches. The next morning, Naomi recalls that their ancestor cut a trail through these woods. She asks Saul to “see” the trail through the trees, which he does. Saul loses the tie to his canvas boots as they trudge through knee-deep snow. Naomi gives him her ties, claiming her tough attitude will keep her warm. Finally, they reach railroad tracks near Minaki. Naomi crouches to embrace Saul in one last gesture of sacrifice. With his head pressed against her chest, he feels her body harden and her life slip away. A group of men find Saul and whisk him away in a car, leaving Naomi’s frozen corpse behind.
Saul is taken to St. Jerome’s, a Catholic school for converting Indigenous people to Christians. Saul notices right away how the building smells of heavy disinfectant. There, Saul is washed and given a haircut before he is presented to Father Quinney and Sister Ignacia. Sister Ignacia tells Saul he can keep his name because it is a biblical name, but another child, Lonnie, must change his because “Lonnie” sounds too “Indian.” When Lonnie protests, Sister Ignacia scolds him and beats him with a paddle. Sister Ignacia tells the boys that they will have “the Indian” removed from them and learn the value of work in order to survive in the world.
A ten-year-old child chokes and dies on a bar of lye soap for speaking Ojibway, and a six-year-old boy hangs himself for being punished for not being able to control his runny nose. Another child, Sheila Jack, who was trained as a shaman by her grandmother, collapses under the stress and is taken to an insane asylum. Shane Big Canoe is locked up in a metal box called the Iron Sister for ten days for trying to escape. The other children notice Shane isn’t the same when he comes out.
Saul and his friends escape to a creek and catch some fish. Saul realizes the fish are like them, gasping on the grass for air before they’re thrown back into the water. Back at the school, the children smell their hands to keep the joy they felt at the creek.
Saul resolves to become numb to all emotions to survive the tragedy he’s witnessing around him.
The chapter opens with the arrival of a new priest, Father Gaston Leboutilier. Leboutilier is young and angers his colleagues with his friendly manner with the children. Leboutilier builds a hockey team at the school. He invites Saul to watch some games. Saul becomes enthralled and develops an aptitude just by watching. He begs Leboutilier to play, but Leboutilier tells Saul he is too young. Instead, Leboutilier offers Saul a job cleaning the ice.
Saul falls in love with his job. He rises before everyone else to work and practices on the ice using frozen horse turds. He imagines himself as the hockey legends he reads about in Leboutilier’s books.
Saul believes he has found an important ally in Leboutilier, who protects him from the nuns. Saul is now nine years old. He’s getting better at the game and senses he just understands how to play. He likens the feeling to “mystery,” which he recalls Naomi explaining as that thing that fills people with wonder.
Leboutilier notices Saul’s talent when he allows Saul to fill in for another player during a scrimmage with a nearby team.
Leboutilier makes a case to Sister Ignacia to allow Saul to play, telling her that Saul’s talent is a gift from god. Saul thinks of his parents. He wonders if drinking had taken them over as hockey has now taken over him. For a moment, he feels intense anguish, but he knows he’ll find relief on the ice.
Saul plays his first game as an official member of the team against the “town team.” On the ice, Saul’s teammates laugh at him because his uniform doesn’t fit. The people in the stands jeer at Saul, calling him a mascot. Undeterred, Saul manages to score. Everyone is in awe, including Leboutilier.
Saul describes more of the hell he experiences at St. Jerome’s. The children are worked and fed like stock and given only enough education for manual work. One day, Saul catches a glimpse of a punishment chamber known as the Iron Sister while putting away equipment with Leboutilier. Leboutilier shamefully admits the school “lacks charity.” At night, Saul describes how the priests and nuns come to the children’s beds. The children are raped and molested. Saul reasons that the worst cruelty of the school is making the children complicit as helpless witnesses to all its brutality.
Saul learns the joys of camaraderie as he leads practices during the off-season.
Some men from town approach Leboutilier—they want Saul to play on their team, the White River Falcons. Saul does well but is kicked off the team when the other teams refuse to play against the Falcons for having an indigenous player. Leboutilier tries to console Saul by saying people are mistaken that they own the game when hockey is really a gift from god for everyone. Dejected, Saul wonders whether that’s true and where god is now.
Saul continues practicing in scrimmage games. One day, a man named Fred Kelly comes to the school. He coaches the Moose, a team of indigenous players that competes with other indigenous teams in tournaments. Fred wants Saul to join the Moose and to become Saul’s legal guardian. Fred is Ojibway, and he and his wife Martha are former St. Jerome’s students. Father Leboutilier argues in Saul’s defense with Sister Ignacia, who calls hockey a “savage” game. Father Quinney gives Saul the choice. Saul, astounded, accepts Fred’s offer.
Saul arrives in Manitouwadge, a mining area where Fred lives. Fred introduces Saul to his three sons, Garrett, Howard, and Virgil. Virgil is the captain of the Moose. Virgil and Fred prepare Saul for his first scrimmage. During the scrimmage, the other players shove and taunt Saul, but Saul flies by them, scoring goal after goal.
Saul learns that playing for a tournament team involves intense competition, long, cramped drives, and playing in all weather conditions. Sometimes, the drives through the wilderness remind Saul of his family, which makes him sad. Despite his small size, Saul earns the esteem of the team with his work ethic and dizzying talent. They begin calling him their secret weapon.
Saul explains that to the kids on the reservations, the idea of one day wearing their home team’s hockey jersey is a dream. Saul relishes every aspect of being a league player—from the fans cheering to the raucous drives home. Saul thrives at home and in school. Fred and Martha treat Saul kindly and even thank him for his work around the house—something Saul never experienced at St. Jerome’s. Virgil helps Saul with his schoolwork and teaches him how to fit in with the other kids.
Father Leboutilier attends one of Saul’s games. Leboutilier brings Saul to his car and pulls him close to tell him goodbye. Saul never sees Leboutilier again.
A group of white men from the Kapuskasing Chiefs, a Senior A team from the Northern Hockey Association, approach Saul and Virgil. Drawn by Saul’s talent, the men challenge the Moose to play against them. Saul hesitates, as he remembers the abuse he suffered in the past playing against white teams. Virgil argues Saul would be denying his team a chance to improve. Virgil adds that the Moose are excited to play in a real rink with hot showers and toilets, something they’ve never experienced. Saul concedes, motivated to serve his fellow teammates.
The chapter opens with the Moose arriving at the Chiefs’ arena. The Moose feel intimidated as they note the long trophy cases and carpeted dressing rooms. Virgil tells his teammates that they just need to stay centered. The crowd jeers every time an indigenous player is called onto the ice. The Chiefs gain a heavy lead right away, but Saul turns the game and scores the winning goal. Saul feels amazed to hear the crowd cheer for him, an indigenous person.
The Moose are invited to play more games, but with each game, they are met with more vicious racism and brutality. Opposing teams cheat, hit, and openly brawl with the Moose on the ice. Crowds throw garbage in racist rages. At a local diner, Virgil and other team members are taken out back, beaten, and urinated on. Saul begins to understand that the crowds hate them for being Indigenous people and playing a game they believe belongs to white people. Virgil and Saul discuss their confusion about such an idea.
The Moose continue to face horrible racism at each game. Saul notices a line of empty seats at games separating the white and indigenous fans. Some opposing players refuse to take off their gloves to shake hands after a game. The Moose begin to feel more dejected. Saul is relentlessly singled out by opposing players. Virgil wants him to fight back, but Saul refuses, even at the cost of losing games and disappointing his teammates. Saul wants to keep the game sacred.
Chapter 33 & Chapter 34
A National Hockey League scout, Jack Lanahan, approaches Saul. Lanahan offers him a chance to play for a feeder team for the NHL Maple Leafs called the Marlboros. Saul feels reluctant to subject himself to more racism. Lanahan says he is wasting his time playing with the Moose and deserves a chance to play at a higher level.
Chapter 35 & Chapter 36
Virgil convinces Saul to take the opportunity, but Saul puts off the offer until the fall. He wants to finish the season with the Moose and have enough time to come to terms with leaving his adopted family and the comforts of Manitouwadge, where he feels integrated into the community. Virgil helps Saul train hard before he leaves for Toronto. Only Virgil goes with Saul to the bus station when it’s time for Saul to leave. As they’re waiting for the bus, Virgil tells Saul he is like a brother to him. Saul said he had a brother but will never talk about him. Virgil reveals that his parents won’t talk about St. Jerome’s either and that maybe Saul is being given a chance to have a bit of good luck for once. Virgil salutes Saul goodbye from outside the bus. Saul wants to cry but focuses on the beauty of the landscape instead.
Saul arrives in Toronto. He is seventeen now. He compares the city to a chimera, a mythical beast made of disjointed parts. Lanahan arranges for Saul to stay with the Sheehans, an elderly couple with strong ties to the NHL.
Saul makes the team as a rookie. He earns teammates’ trust with his passes, but they ignore him. They consider him an oddity. The press is relentless, continually stereotyping Saul and labeling him as the “Rampaging Redskin.” Crowds throw “Indian” figurines on the ice. Opponents cut him with their blades in unnecessary attacks. Saul betrays his promise to keep the game clean and begins playing up the persona of a savage. Saul’s coach tells him to stop playing himself that way, explaining that that’s not why he’s on the team. Saul retorts that he’s just giving the people what they want. Saul finds himself benched for more and more games. Finding it impossible to navigate the overwhelming racism, he heads back to Manitouwadge.
Saul recalls a girl from St. Jerome’s, Rebecca Wolf, who commits suicide in front of the kids while singing an Ojibway song. As she lay dying, the other children ran to her and finished singing her song. When done singing, the children reentered the school, passing the nuns and priests without making eye contact.
Saul is back home in Manitouwadge. He and Virgil talk about what happened in Toronto. Virgil points out that despite the abuse, Saul has earned a record that could get him into the NHL. He tells Saul he was born to do more than just work in mines.
Saul takes a job as a deadfall bucker with a forestry crew. Soon, Saul ships off to a logging camp deeper in the woods. Saul’s fear of being isolated vanishes in the presence of nature, which he feels deeply. Saul’s white, burly coworkers abuse him and call him racist names like “Chief” and “Tonto.” Saul tries to ignore the abuse and focus on his work, but the insults and attacks are relentless. Saul finally lashes out at one man—Jorgenson—who gets drunk and tries to hit Saul while playing cards. Saul blocks his punch and strangles him for a moment. He tells the table of men that the game is over, and they don’t bother him again.
Chapter 41 & Chapter 42
Saul joins the Moose again, but his experiences have hardened him. He becomes too defensive and aggressive with his attacks on the ice, and he alienates the other players. Now eighteen, Saul decides to leave the North behind completely. He packs his bag and tools. Virgil tells Saul he thinks Saul’s just running away and says he can build a life in Manitouwadge, adding that Saul may feel alone, but he isn’t.
Saul packs his truck and drives away from the Kellys’ home. He becomes a working nomad, taking up all sorts of jobs from carpenter to dishwasher. He still faces relentless racism but manages to restrain himself from reacting. Saul remembers the numb feeling he had inside while strangling Jorgenson. He finds solace in music and drinking. Saul develops a persona as a storytelling “Injun,” regaling his coworkers with stories, sometimes invented. At night, he finds his life glimmering but dull.
Saul meets an older man, Erv Sift, at a bar. Sift, a farmer and widower, lives alone. He asks Saul to tell him some stories, acknowledging the Ojibway are such good storytellers. Sift then gives Saul work on his farm, including room and board. He helps Saul ease off drinking as well.
Saul grows restless and relapses. Feeling guilty, he boards a bus for Winnipeg, leaving Sift behind.
Saul tries to stop drinking but ends up in a hospital with a seizure. Social workers send Saul to the New Dawn Centre for treatment. Saul prefers exploring the territory behind the Centre over being with people inside.
Saul, while on a walk at night, has a vision of his great-grandfather, Shabogeesick, and a horse. In the vision, Saul’s great-grandfather waves an eagle wing fan over him, and the members of Saul’s family appear one by one. Naomi puts her finger to her mouth and smiles at him. Saul cries deeply.
Chapter 49 & Chapter 50
Saul goes back to St. Jerome’s, which is now a wasteland. He thinks of Leboutilier, who always repeated the words “You are a glory, Saul.” Recalling these words, Saul suddenly remembers Leboutilier’s abuse. Leboutilier would come into Saul’s room at night and put his head under his covers, repeating these words. Saul leaves St. Jerome’s and heads toward God’s Lake. While making camp, he whacks at a tree stump with his hatchet, Leboutilier’s words washing over him. He realizes hockey, which Leboutilier said would make Saul free, was just another source of abuse.
Saul has another vision of Shabogeesick at God’s Lake. This time, Shabogeesick speaks. He tells Saul that Saul came here to learn how to carry God’s Lake within him. Saul looks up at the moon and sees an image of a hockey rink filled with happy indigenous players. He sings an Ojibway prayer and, for the first time, feels some peace.
Saul heads back to the New Dawn Centre. Determined to live life rather than be haunted by it, he works with Moses, his sponsor, to process his painful memories. Feeling stronger, he heads back to the Kelly house. Fred and Martha greet Saul. Saul notices Fred has some gray hair. They sit together in silence for a bit before Saul opens up about his abuse at the school. Fred and Martha say they know as it happened to them as well. Saul asks Fred how long it takes to heal. Fred reassures Saul that all he has to do is keep moving and leave time to take care of the healing.
Chapters 53 – Chapter 56
Saul reunites with Virgil, who is now married, has children, and coaches a local hockey team. Saul opens up with Virgil about his abuse too. Virgil doesn’t share Saul’s history of trauma but expresses sympathy to Saul nonetheless. He tells Saul he wishes he could make the people of St. Jerome’s suffer for what they did to Saul and to his own parents. Later, Virgil invites Saul to the rink. Saul finds a piece of balled-up tape on the ice, which reminds him of the horse turds he used to use for practice. Fred and Martha emerge from the sidelines, along with some of Saul’s former Moose teammates, who begin to crowd the ice. They begin to play a game, united.