Gut-wrenching. If I had to come up with one word to describe “Five Little Indians” by Michelle Good, that would be it.
I spent part of my childhood living in the prairies. One summer, and I couldn’t have been much older than 9, my parents, my brothers and I were driving in northern Manitoba where I saw a large white building in the middle of nowhere. When I asked what it was, my mother replied, “That’s a boarding school, Dear.”
“What’s a boarding school?” I asked.
My mom went on to explain that Indian children went to school there – they lived there – and that they weren’t very nice schools. That’s all my mom could tell me and our conversation ended. Looking back, I believe that that is all that my mother knew – that they weren’t “nice schools”. She must have known that children were taken from their parents and that they lived in harsh conditions, but she couldn’t have known how harsh. My 9 year old self knew that kids living at a school without their families was wrong.
I was drawn to Michelle Good’s book “Five Little Indians” because it was shortlisted for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, but I was also turned off by the title. I kept going back to it, though, intrigued. “How can we get away with using Indians in the title of a book? What is it about this book?” Now that I have read it, I understand.
“Five Little Indians” is a carefully weaved story about five children who suffered in a residential school in British Columbia. One escaped and the other four were released as they turned 16; eventually, they found themselves in downtown Vancouver. Each of the five – Kenny, Maisie, Clara, Lucy and Howie – relived the torture of residential schools as adults and endured the hardship of living in East Vancouver where nobody wanted them around. Throughout the novel, their paths met, separated and reconnected. From one story to another, Michelle Good paints a picture of the suffering that happened in residential schools and its long term effects. Many times I had to stop reading and reflect.
Good helped me to understand why the emotion and physical suffering of Indigenous Canadians continued for many years after children left residential schools and why it continues to effect them today, years after the last one was closed. Now I better comprehend the horrors that Indigenous children experienced and the impact that has had on their lives as adults. But I am only beginning to understand. I know that I have more to learn.
“Five Little Indians” is powerful. It is educational. It is real. And the title is absolutely perfect. Every Canadian needs to read this book.