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.