Book Review: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

Five Little Indians – Michelle Good (Harper Perennial, 2020)

At the age of sixteen, Lucy ages out of the residential school that she has attended for the last ten years. Put on a boat and given a bus ticket to Vancouver, she arrives on the Downtown Eastside with no world experience and a deep history of trauma and abuse. Her only connection is a former schoolmate, Maisie, and with the help of the other residential school survivors, she creates a new life for herself.

Five Little Indians follows five young people in the days, months, and years following their various departures from a residential school in British Columbia. Kenny, Lucy, Maisie, Clara, and Howie all left the Catholic Church-run, government-sanctioned schools at differing times and circumstances but the abuse and trauma they experienced there is something that haunts them for the rest of their lives. The reader follows each one as they develop their own unique coping techniques, as they learn about their place in a world where much is assumed of them based on their status as “Indians”, and they attempt to reconnect with the families and cultures that were stolen from them at a young age.

Residential schools in Canada have been featured heavily in the news in 2021, both here in Canada and internationally. Residential schools were run up until the 1990s and were spread across the country. They were operated by the Catholic Church and the Canadian government and were a way to separate Indigenous children from their families. In the schools the children were not permitted to speak their own languages, practise their own religion, or in any way participate in their own cultures. They were abused, starved, and kept from their families. Many of the children died in these schools. To date, thousands of bodies have been discovered at the sites of these former schools and it is extremely likely thousands more remain to be found.

For those who might say that such things exist in Canada’s past or who question why Indigenous people today can’t just “get over it”, Five Little Indians is a tragic and brutally honest reply. The book begins in the 1960s when the residential schools were in full force but continues into the 21st century as the characters age. Good does a phenomenal job of portraying the ways such trauma dwells within bodies, how it ripples out through communities and into the next generation. While I found the writing itself somewhat repetitive and not always as rich as it could have been, Good truly does make these characters come alive. Each of the five feels fully fleshed-out and real. Their voices, their backgrounds, and their experiences are all unique. The characters who surround them also feel quite real and Good uses them to demonstrate a wide variety of Indigenous experience in Canada.

Without planning to, I began reading Five Little Indians on September 30th, Canada’s first National Day of Truth and Reconciliation. It was a terrific reminder of my own privilege as a white Canadian and of the work we as a country have ahead of us to right the wrongs that have been done. Highly recommended.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good”

  1. Is the author an Indigenous person? I ask because when I would listen to Native American people tell stories when I lived on a reservation, I noticed that part of the culture is the story is pretty slow and can repeat, almost as if it were designed for you to remember and retell yourself. Perhaps that is reflected in the author’s writing? Fun side note: in ASL, your story always begins with the topic, then the story, then verifying the person understood the story, then follow-up questions. So, it seems repetitive, but it’s about clear and understood communication. It does make me think about how often we who use English get confused by sarcasm, euphemisms, and a story that doesn’t have a point until the very end.

    1. Yes, she is. That’s an interesting note. I wonder if that is something she did intentionally.

      That’s so fascinating to me that ASL has its own story-telling structure. It makes sense though that it would have a focus on being clear and making sure you are understood.

    1. Thank you! It’s a powerful reminder of how recent and relevant all this history is here in Canada and why it can’t simply be forgotten or disappear.

  2. I had no idea of this part of Canada’s history until I watched the Anne With An E series recently, then of course from reading your comments on the subject. This sounds like a must-read.

    1. Unfortunately, a lot of Canadians are largely unaware of this part of our history too. (Or at least were before this year.) It was never taught when I was in school. I haven’t seen the Anne with an E series; interesting that they have chosen to include this history. I think that’s great because it’s more accurate but it’s definitely not in the books!

    2. No, this part of history was not in the Anne books! I disliked that the Anne With an E series was such a different story and much darker than the books, but we watched it as a family and everyone else enjoyed it enormously. Watching the series was a learning opportunity either way.

    3. It would probably bother me too that it was so different from the books. But I can see that it makes a good chance to reach about this side of history.

  3. I’ve only added this book to my TBR recently, so it is so nice to read such a positive review of it. Though I am a bit anxious about all the “brutal honesty” I will find in the book, I do want to prioritise it regardless because it definitely tells a story that needs to be told.

    1. For me, what made it hard to read was knowing that it is based in truth and seeing how young these children were. The actual abuses that occur are not given in great detail or lingered over but placed in a way that feels necessary for the reader’s understanding. It really is such an important story and I’m glad that the book and the author are gaining in recognition.

  4. Man I really need to read this book! I imagine reading it during Truth and Reconciliation Day made it that much more powerful too. I think I read somewhere that she had written this as a response to those ignorant people who say things like ‘why can’t they just get over it’. I’m happy we are talking more about trauma and how it ripples through us, and our society, it’s such a valuable conversation.

    1. It wasn’t planned but the timing was very good. It’s really the best argument for people who suggest anyone “just get over it”. It shows both how present this trauma is and how it trickles down to subsequent generations.

  5. I agree that the strength of this book lies in its effectiveness of showing how the trauma of residential schools lives in everyone differently and ripples out into communities and over generations. It’s a really good example of a book everyone should read.

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