By Julie Kish
Book: Five Little Indians
Author: Michelle Good
Publisher: Harper Perennial, 2020
Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians, chronicles the lives of five Indigenous youth as they “age out” of the notorious residential school system in British Columbia in the 1960s. They are given nothing but a bus ticket to Vancouver and must survive with no financial assistance, no high school diploma, and no family support.
As well as facing profound racism and hostility, they have to deal with the traumatic effects of the abuse and inhumane living conditions they endured at the residential school. They are all broken in different ways and cling together for safety. The story focuses primarily on the characters after they leave the school, but their horrendous childhood experiences are featured throughout the novel. The impact on the lives of the grief-stricken parents is also powerfully highlighted.
There is abundant suffering in the book, but there is also unwavering love, resilience and healing. The complex characters are expertly crafted and stay with the reader long after the novel’s end.
Author Michelle Good is of Cree ancestry and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan, and she has worked with indigenous organizations since she was a teenager. In her forties, she obtained a law degree and spent much of her career advocating for residential school survivors. Although the novel itself is fiction, some of the episodes are based on the lives of survivors she met during her career. She also incorporated the stories told by her mother and grandmother, who were both residential school survivors.
The author chose to write this book to help people understand the lasting impact of the residential school system. Readers have undoubtedly heard about this issue but the characters in Five Little Indians bring the experience to life.
More than 150,000 children attended the schools located across Canada from the late 1800s until the last school closed in 1996. For 130 years, children were forcibly removed from their parents, traumatizing the children and their families. Parents had no legal recourse and often did not know where the authorities had taken their children.
During this time, families could not pass down language or culture, and hundreds of First Nation communities existed with no school-age children.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission report, published in 2015, referred to the residential school system as a case of “cultural genocide.” It was “part of a coherent policy to eliminate Aboriginal people and assimilate them into the Canadian mainstream against their will.”
Between 2007 and 2015, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission heard from more than 6,500 witnesses and documented a historical record of the residential school system. To view the report released in 2015, as well as the 94 “calls to action” or recommendations, visit the National Centre for Truth and Reconciliation website.
Five Little Indians is a staggeringly powerful book and a vital read for all Canadians who want to understand this horrific part of Canadian history.