Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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Five Little Indians by Michelle Good introduces us to Canadian indigenous young adults freshly out of country-mandated “Indian schools” and their struggles to find their footing in an unrecognizable outside world.

Set in the 1960s, the novel first takes us to Kenny, a determined boy who likes running away from the Mission School. The school is run by the Catholic church as Sister Mary and Brother John strike fear into the students who live there permanently after being taken away from their parents in an attempt to “assimilate” them into Canadian society. When Kenny notices his friend Howie is unresponsive sleeping in bloodied sheets, he knows Howie has been hurt by Brother. He can’t take the abuse anymore even though the one bright light for him is sneaking notes to a girl named Lucy, whose latest punishment leads her to having her head badly shaven and wearing a sign that reads she’s a liar. Kenny decides to take the risk again to run away and find his fisherman uncle who can lead him to his mother.

Fast forward to a sixteen-year-old Lucy being pushed out of school since she’s reached the age of departure. The school puts her on a bus with a one-way ticket to Vancouver where she’s searching for her old friend Maisie. Lucy doesn’t know where her family is anymore, so Maisie is her best bet to stay with until she figures out what to do in the real world. Because she’s depending on an old letter with Maisie’s address, Lucy tries to find Maisie after getting off the bus in town. The harrowing experience puts her in danger until she finds Maisie, who seems stable in her new life after Indian school.

A few years out of school, Maisie has a job cleaning a filthy motel. It’s the only job she could get without any training. She hooks Lucy up with the same job. Maisie has a restaurant spot and knows where to get anything she wants, a quality Lucy admires. She also has a boyfriend, Jimmy, who’s also indigenous but his parents escaped to Seattle when the Indian school mandates went into effect, so he doesn’t understand Maisie’s experiences. Nobody seems to understand what Maisie went through. Unbeknownst to Lucy, Maisie self-medicates the only way she knows and lives a double life.

Once Lucy gets on her feet years later, she’s a nurse and a mother. She’s now the teacher when she takes in Clara, fresh out of Indian school. With her own trauma of seeing a friend die at school, Clara uses her energy to help raise Lucy’s baby daughter Kendra, named after her father Kenny. A string of gigs leads to Clara doing advocacy work for other indigenous adults who want to take legal action against the teachers they dealt with in Indian school. Her work takes her on a wild adventure that brings her to an elderly woman named Mariah, who uses the traditions she’s always known to take care of her home and her community.

Weeds. She remembered George telling her once that Indians were like weeds to the white people. Something to be wiped out so their idea of a garden could grow. He told her weeds were indigenous flowers.

One of the people Clara helps turns out to be Howie, the boy Kenny thought Brother killed when he didn’t wake up. After surviving Brother’s abuse, Howie bulks up his muscles and seeks his version of revenge. Clara advises Howie on how to stay out of trouble and find ways to handle the abuse that she’s all too familiar with. Howie reunites with Kenny, who has dipped in and out of everyone’s lives. It’s how Kenny deals with his inner demons. The older everyone gets, the more they realize their emotional well-being is a lifelong battle.

Over the past few years, the horrors of Indian residential schools have resurfaced through newly discovered mass graves and other records in Canada. Administered by the Canadian government and local churches, the schools started in the 1880s with the mission to educate indigenous children on Euro-Canadian and Christian values to assimilate in the greater Canadian society. The last school closed in 1996. That means there are countless living survivors dealing with the trauma similar to that of the characters in the novel. The author, who is of Cree ancestry and a descendent of the Battle River Cree and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation, earned her law degree at age 43 to dedicate her legal career to assisting residential school survivors.

In January, Canada promised to devote $40 billion to the global fund that contributes to paying survivors harmed by residential schools and severe underfunding of First Nations family services. The government acknowledges the discovery of mass graves on top of the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recovery has further harmed survivors.

The characters in the novel are living in a time when mental health is not general awareness, and they’re looking for ways to survive without real skills. They also deal with the blow of not connecting properly with their families after years away from them. So, they’re creating their own families with each other and the friends they meet along the way. When Clara becomes involved in the American Indian Movement, for example, she depends on several friends to help her with her activism, but she mostly depends on her dog, John Lennon. Their bond is heartwarming, and it shows how an unofficial emotional support pet can lift her spirits despite the situation.

Being in the literary fiction genre, the novel describes the surroundings and the lives of the characters in vivid detail necessary to developing the story and moving it forward. The author does a great job of interconnecting their lives at different points where you have the reunion of Kenny and Lucy, for example, but it’s not as picture-perfect as you would hope with Kenny dealing with his own demons while Lucy uses her time constructively to build a career and a home for their daughter.

Overall, it’s difficult to explain the magic of this book. It opens readers’ eyes to a time in history that’s been buried in general knowledge and now is being revealed more through tragic news and the long-awaited government response. It’s upsetting to read what the characters are experiencing at their school and to know that their experiences can be a true reflection of real-life people who attended those schools against their will. With the author’s own advocacy for residential school survivors, the novel displays layers of the characters’ developments as they finish adolescence and enter adulthood barely knowing their own culture while discovering their own selves.

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