1309 The object of Indigenous writing
Five Little Indians
by Michelle Good
Toronto: HarperCollins Canada (Harper Perennial), 2020
$22.99 / 9781443459181
Reviewed by Harper Campbell
Teaching and healing have always been important aspects to Indigenous writing in Canada. Look at any famous Indigenous author, whether that be Pauline Johnson or Richard Wagamese, and you’ll find that teaching and healing are central to their texts. And wherever Indigenous authors gather to discuss their craft, the words “teaching” and “healing” come up incessantly. There is a sense of mission among Indigenous authors, a sense that writing is there to do something and not merely to entertain.
Teaching and healing are likewise central to Five Little Indians, the novel by Michelle Good (Red Pheasant Cree from Saskatchewan). The subject is residential schools, but not so much the experience itself as the lifelong effects it has on those who survived it. “Why can’t they just get over it?” is the question that Michelle Good kept hearing in discussions of residential schools, and as someone who spent 14 years as a lawyer helping survivors with litigation, she has been party to many such discussions. So, while continuing to practice law, she attended UBC’s creative writing program and wrote this book as her thesis — to show exactly why survivors can’t “just get over it.”
Before reading the book, I was worried that having five different protagonists might end up unbalancing the novel. With a group novel that tries to represent many dimensions of a huge experience, the temptation is to get the widest cross-section of individuals possible, with each character chosen more for their place in the scheme than because the novelist feels a genuine connection to them. This doesn’t end up being a problem for Good, though. It’s clear that she writes her characters with love and feels a genuine connection to them. Also, her characters come from the same cohort of students at a single residential school, and are all connected somehow or other, which helps keep the novel unified.
Lucy is at the centre of the first part of the novel. She’s given a ticket to Vancouver by one of the Sisters, and before she knows it she’s traded the suffocating world of residential school for the wide-open, but in some respects equally dangerous, world of the Downtown East Side. We meet her as the wide-eyed innocent, and she remains a relatively mild-mannered character. In Vancouver she meets up with a friend who graduated the year before, Maisie, who’s got an apartment, a boyfriend, and a job cleaning at a hotel. Lucy starts working there too and meets Clara, who also attended the same school. Clara is impetuous and hot-headed, a real contrast with Lucy. If Lucy’s stability gives us a place to feel a bit more safe in the novel, Clara’s spirit helps to liven it up.
None of the girls were allowed to socialize with boys at the residential school (and hardly allowed to socialize with each other, for that matter) so the two male characters don’t figure in their lives at first. Kenny is the only kid known to have successfully escaped from the school, which we see him do in the exciting first chapter of the novel. Howie doesn’t show up until much later when we meet him on his release from prison. But these characters aren’t really outsiders in the story, and end up just as connected to the women as the women are to each other.
That might sound like a lot of plot, but things move relatively fast in Five Little Indians. The novel starts in the 1960s and ends close to the new millennium — when exactly, it’s hard to say. It’s a large scope for a novel of 300-odd pages, but Good makes it work by skipping freely along the characters’ lives. Sometimes we’re given every detail of a character’s day, but then skipped ahead a few months or years. Other times we’re given more of a middle-distance view and the events of a few weeks or months are summarized in a couple pages. We’re sometimes left with a sense of time gap, that we have missed out on something that might have been important, but overall I think the strategy works. I should add, too, that the timelines for the different characters are slightly out of sync. Some readers will find this annoying, but personally I never got confused about what was going on.
Good, who was born in 1956, grew up in Kitimat and moved to Vancouver in her teens. She knows firsthand the places and times she writes about. The novel becomes a great portrait of Vancouver from the 60s through the 90s. She doesn’t often stop to paint word-pictures of what the city was like back then, but the feel of it seeps in through the whole story. It’s a proprioceptive sense, a sense of being located in a certain place, that lingers with everyone no matter what they are up to. When Good gets to describing the Native community events in the 90s, she captures a certain feel to them that matches what I saw in my childhood. These are situations I haven’t seen described anywhere else. Seeing them described towards the end of a story that begins in the 60s has helped me contextualize my own experience.
Since its publication, Five Little Indians has been an unqualified success. In addition to winning the GG and being noticed by the Giller and Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, the book has a very high rating on the popular website Goodreads, 4.52 stars (out of 5). The book has been rated over 8,000 times, and a glance through the reviews show almost unmitigated admiration. The reviews also point to another fact — that the reception of this book is inextricable from the contemporary moment around residential schools. Ever since May of this year, when unmarked graves of children at Kamloops Indian Residential School were reported, and again in June with the Marieval Indian Residential School in Saskatchewan, a new reckoning with residential schools has begun. At almost the exact same time, the George Floyd protests swept through the public in the western world, igniting a greater willingness to confront injustice. Many reviewers on Goodreads note that they picked up the book due to the greater awareness these events fostered, and found it very helpful in understanding residential schools. A reviewer at the Toronto Star put it best: this book “opened my heart as well as my eyes.”
In spite of all this, though, I’m left with some qualms about the novel and its treatment of residential schools. One of the most noticeable features of writing about residential schools is the reticence with which the topic is treated. Whether it’s Basil H. Johnston’s Indian School Days (1988), Vera Manuel’s Strength of Indian Women (2019), or Rosanna Deerchild’s Calling Down the Sky (2015), the emphasis often lies on what cannot be articulated. In some ways this is just about how painful the experience was, and how painful it is to revisit it; but on a deeper level, there’s a sense that to fully articulate these experiences would take away some of their reality. It might not do justice to the experience to make it too explicit.
In some respects, Good is equally reticent in her treatment of what actually happened in the residential schools. She doesn’t lay out her characters’ traumatic experiences in excruciating detail. She’s sensitive to how painful these experiences are to revisit for survivors and the family of survivors, and doesn’t turn her characters’ pain into something voyeuristic. All the same, though, her smooth, polished prose tends to flatten things out. It doesn’t touch the deeps, and in so doing it tends to imply that there isn’t anything deeper than what can be represented.
This felt especially true about Maisie’s chapters in the first half of the novel (I’ll try to avoid spoilers). Maisie is suffering a lot from her trauma, and Good conveys this by showing us her symptoms and her coping strategies. Like a movie or TV camera, we seem able only to witness what is explicit, what is happening right before our eyes. Something seems to be missing — some way of touching on Maisie’s suffering that brings the immensity, the unspeakableness of the experience to the forefront. Instead, it is all treated as speakable, as witnessable, and the result is that it isn’t adequate. These chapters, I felt, were some of the weakest in the book, and they end up making Maisie’s actions, although not unrealistic in terms of things people actually do, come across as implausible and even sensationalized.
We have reached a tipping point of some kind with respect to residential schools. Michelle Good might be the first writer who can depend on an audience of settlers who are aware of and curious about residential schools. But there is a risk that we might be shifting into a terrain where writers can lean on residential schools as shorthand for suffering, like many writers do with the Holocaust. And this treatment hasn’t served the Holocaust well — its frequent, all too casual use in books and movies has made it, in the public mind, a bit more cartoonish, over-solemnized, the butt of jokes (like the Family Guy gag where Peter won’t stop eating chips even while the SS are searching Anne Frank’s house).
I don’t think Michelle Good is contributing to something similar with residential schools. This is a book whose dedication to teaching and healing is unimpeachable. But the risk of this happening is a reason to be conscious about, and in some ways critical of, her approach to depicting residential schools. It matters how we portray suffering, what we leave in and what we leave out, especially in works intended at least in part to memorialize that suffering. Nevertheless, I think that any reader’s takeaway from this book will be the warm humanity of Good’s approach to her characters and their experiences. Five Little Indians deserves its success and has made an important intervention into public discussions of residential schools.
Harper Campbell has published poetry in Salish Seas: An Anthology of Text + Image (Aboriginal Writers Collective West Coast, 2011), an essay in The Salt Chuck City Review (volume 1, 2019), and translations of the Indonesian poet Chairil Anwar in Columbia Journal (2021) and Ezra (forthcoming). He has an honours degree in philosophy and Asian studies from the University of British Columbia. Editor’s note: Harper Campbell has also reviewed books by Joseph Dandurand, Margaret Laurence, jaye simpson, and Joshua Whitehead for The Ormsby Review.
The Ormsby Review. More Books. More Reviews. More Often.
Publisher and Editor: Richard Mackie
The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of BC books and authors in all fields and genres. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Wade Davis, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Hugh Johnston, Kathy Mezei, Patricia Roy, Maria Tippett, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC
“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster