Author Michelle Good takes us back to the 1970s in her recent novel Five Little Indians. Among its awards are a Giller Prize and the Governor General’s Literary Awards. Last year, it was the third best-selling book in Canada.
For starters, I was surprised at the title. Very few Indigenous people refer themselves as Indians. Perhaps it is meant to catch your attention and “throw” you back to the time this was in common use.
Five Little Indians is historical fiction. It follows five Indigenous people who are released from the same residential school off Vancouver Island. The book starts off following Kenny, age 14, escaping by boat from a residential school. He makes it seem to his trackers that he has drowned and makes it back to his own community. However, Kenny’s mother and the home he left as a child is not the same. His mother, while he was away, had lost hope. He barely recognizes her. The house was unkept and full of bottles. He tries to help her and even gets a few short-term jobs, mostly in fishing. But Kenny eventually drifts down to Vancouver’s very sketchy Downtown Eastside where he connects with others who attended the same residential school.
Then there is 16-year-old Lucy who ages out of the Mission residential school. She is suddenly released and sent to the Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside because she has no known family. Arriving late one evening, she is “helped” with correct bus fare by a pimp. She manages to escape.
Maisie fares a little better eventually getting a job as a native court worker. She cannot stand the attitude of court officials but learns to ignore it. Instead, she focuses on keeping fellow Indigenous people out of jail, at least until they can get a lawyer. She explains their often-desperate situations.
Similarly, the novel follows two more former residential school survivors as they try to cope with their very limited skill set and a legacy of severe abuse. Each of the characters weave into and out of each other’s lives over the next few decades.
Fortunately for the reader, Michelle Good does not detail the horrific events the children endured in residential school. We are given just enough information to have some idea of what they endured.
While the story starts out quite dark, it has its exciting moments too. Clara gets involved in the American Indian Movement near Wounded Knee running small arms into a camp. Running from the FBI, she crashes her old Falcon into a ditch knocking herself out. She is rescued by friends who get her back to Canada. While things cool off, Clara stays with an elder who cares for her while she recovers. She experiences traditional healing, both physical and emotional.
Clara eventually reconnects with a former fellow survivor, Howie, who was recently released from jail. After years away living in the southern USA, he accidentally meets the Brother from the residential school. He badly assaults the Brother and is sentenced to seven years in prison.
The book does not mention multi-generational residential school families. Where I live in Williams Lake, most First Nations families experienced three generations of residential school. St. Joseph’s Mission, just 15 kilometers from here operated in some form for 90 years closing about 1980. (Yes, it has unmarked graves as well.) It should not be a surprise that over 40 years later, Indigenous people still suffer a much higher rate of health and social problems than the population as a whole.
As settlers perceived it, First Nations people were “in the way” of progress. Christians who thought they were doing God’s will operated these schools. That should humble us all.
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