Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and What I Have learned about Residential Schools in Canada

Howdy Friends! I am back after a little break from writing reviews and blogging. I took some time to find and read information about Canada’s history to date with residential school under the Indian Act. I have been thinking a lot about the heartbreaking treatment of Indigenous children and reading and researching as much as I can about it. Today I am sharing my thoughts on Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and what I learned about residential school that gave a strong voice to the characters for me.

Why I wanted to read this book

I had Five Little Indians on my list to read after the Black Lives Matter protests. I decided to look at racism a little closer to home and support Indigenous writers in Canada as well. I started this one but due to a lack of awareness I didn’t have much knowledge on residential schools to understand the importance or where this story was going so I decided to put it aside. After the news of finding the remains of 215 children in a mass grave at a residential school in Kamloops BC, I wanted to understand more about Canada’s history with the schools. I knew little about the schools, The Indian Act, and the extend of the mistreatment of Indigenous Peoples. So I searched for information on it and read 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality, where I found some of the information I have learned about residential schools. 751 unmarked graves, not mass graves, were also found in a cemetery run by the Roman Catholic church at a former Saskatchewan residential school.  It is unknown how many of the remains are children or adults who may have attended the church and lived in local surrounding towns.

“The most aggressive and destructive part of the Indian Act policies. When the federal government assigned the 11 numbered treaties starting in 1871, it assumed responsibility for the education of Indians in Manitoba, Sask, Alberta, and parts of Ontario, BC, and Northwest Territories. They agreed, wanting their children to have an education, unaware of what lays ahead for their children” ~ 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality.  

About the Book

Five Little Indians by Michelle Good won 2020 Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction and long listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize in Canada. 

What the Book is about

The story follows five former Mission, BC residential school students, Lucy, Kenny, Maisie, Clara, and Howie. It explores the damage done as they struggle to overcome, forget and live with the trauma they endured in school. We see what life might have been like for students after leaving the school and into their adult life from each character’s POVs.

My thoughts on Five Little Indians

Michelle Good creates an important story by giving voices to residential survivors through her memorable characters trying to survive in a world after their Indigenous heritage is ripped from them. She sets them on a path with experiences that highlight some dark reality for residential survivors. We see how the legacy of the residential schools impacts Indigenous peoples today by showing us the impact intergenerational trauma has on families while answering that common question through the characters’ actions “why can’t they just get over it.”  

Michelle Good creates her characters with compassion and a non-judgmental tone, making this a strong, readable story. The five characters are very likable, which gives a realistic feel; however, I found them too likable for a story, and the characters themselves lack some depth. They make some bad choices but primarily good choices, but their choices are affected by residential school traumas. It lacks turns to the story, and it was easy to see the direction the characters are going, which took away the tension needed to move the story forward for me. It is clear the horrors the characters suffered during their years in the school, but it is not dwelled into. The story does start darker than I expected and turns lighter than I expected, throwing off the story’s pace for me.

The story’s strength is how the treatment, abuse, loss of their language and isolation from their culture, community and family are explored through the characters’ actions.  

The dialogue is not the strongest part of the story and sometimes felt a bit cringy, but that didn’t impact the importance of the story and just something maybe to keep in mind going into if that kind of thing might bother you.

The story’s heart is the support the characters and community have for each other, which gives the story a heartwarming feeling. Michelle Good shines a good light on that support but feels a little too good to be true for a story at times.  This does add a hopeful, heartwarming and a lighter feel to the story if you are used to more darker stories.

I recommend for the importance of the story and to bring awareness to the trauma experienced by Indigenous peoples.

More about the characters. I do not use spoilers, but if you prefer not to know much about the characters and story, skip this part and return once you read it.

From Michelle Good experience with residential school survives, she took a look at the kinds of abuses that students experienced while they were in the schools and created outcomes and how their lives would unfold after that. ~ I found this from an interview with Michelle Good.

Many of the children died from diseases like tuberculosis, and Lily from the story bleeds to death and is left to die alone. She is a real ife person from Michelle Good mother’s real-life experience in the school.

We follow

Modest and quiet Maisie who has a dark, dangerous secret as a result of an abusive priest.

Kind and rebellious Kenny represents the children who escaped the school. He escapes home to his mother, and we see the part of her that is a mother is gone due to her child being taken away. He is restless with the need to wander and escapes when he stays in one place too long.

Lucy tries to find love and family while raising her daughter. She is accepting, supportive, and understanding of her friends with shared experiences. She needs to keep things clean and organized to gain control.

Lucy and Kenny’s daughter Kendra is an example of intergenerational trauma.

Lost Clara feels cut off from her culture and struggles with her traditions and the Church’s teaching. This lead her on a dangerous path, where she unexpectedly finds her way to healing.

Anger Howie deals with that anger created from the trauma he experienced at the hands of an abusive priest.

About the author

Michelle Good Cree writer and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. Her family, including her mother, attended a residential school. She did not have to because her mother lost her Indian status when she married, a indigenous man her father. After working for Indigenous organizations for twenty-five years she obtained a law degree and advocated for residential school survivors for over fourteen years. She earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia while still practising law and managing her own law firm. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in magazines and anthologies across Canada, and her poetry was included on two lists of the best Canadian poetry in 2016 and 2017. Five Little Indians, her first novel, won the HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize. Michelle Good now lives and writes in the southern interior British Columbia.

What I have learned about Residential Schools that I felt gave me a better understanding of the story

Residential Schools were created under The Indian Act in 1886 with the goal to “kill the Indian in the child” and assimilate them faster into Canadian society, but it was some of the children who died. Children died from diseases, malnourishment, and neglect and suffered physical and sexual abuse. 

They were church run with 70% by The Catholic Church government-funded industrial schools. The children suffered psyical and sexual abuse by members of the church. 

The schools were off-reserve, dormitory-style and overcrowded separating them from their families, community, culture, and traditions.  The children were stripped of their language and culture

In 1920 it became mandatory for all Indian status children to attend the schools. If parents did not agree to send their children, they were taken from them. Attendace were compulsory till 1969, and the last school to close was in 1996.  

For more information on the Indian Act, I highly recommend 21 Things You May Not Know About the Indian Act: Helping Canadians Make Reconciliation with Indigenous Peoples a Reality

5 thoughts on “Five Little Indians by Michelle Good and What I Have learned about Residential Schools in Canada”

  1. Wonderful post Brenda. I am definitely going to find these two books. I am heartbroken about all of this and I am glad we Canadians are finally recognizing this and not allowing it to be swept under the rug any longer. I also recommend Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga. It is a bit dry, but is about how this racism of Indigenous people is still occurring. It is non-fiction dealing with seven high school students death.

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    1. Thank you, Carla! I have Seven Fallen Feathers: Racism, Death, and Hard Truths in a Northern City by Tanya Talaga on overdrive right now. I am glad to see you recommend it!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I found this to be a book I read quickly but also had to walk away from at times. I agree with you in the lack of depth in character. I’m a nurse and was curious about Lucy and her career .

    I also was wondering about the schools in Saskatchewan compared to those is BC. Howie’s mother says he is enrolled Saskatchewan. Would this also have been a residential school.

    I’m very happy I read this book, it helped me to comprehend how this awful part of Canadian history impacted not just the child, but parents and the next generations as well.

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    1. Sorry for taking so long to get back to you, Jennifer! All Catholic residential schools across Canadian we pretty much ran the same way by the Catholic church. I questioned that about Howie and went back and reread that part. I think that Howie was registered in a non government funded/church ran school. This is where things get complicated and not much is said about it. From what I understand not all Indigenous children had to go to residential school. A very few were able to stay on the reserves so I think they were some schools there. Also only Indian Status children were forced to go to the schools. The author’s mother lost her status because she married a white man so Michelle did not have to attend a residential school.

      I am glad to see you were happy you read it! I was too and also found it helped me understand how it impacted Indigenous communities.


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