“They call us survivors.”
“I don’t think I survived. Do you?”
Brilliant, unrelenting, and ultimately healing, Five Little Indians tells the story of five residential school students in the 1960s. Whether they survived—or will survive, as making it out of the school doesn’t necessarily mean a long life after that—is another matter. Those who managed to escape from the school still find themselves running, and those who were unceremoniously kicked out the day they turned 16 must find a way to get by in an unfamiliar city. The residential school has taught them nothing but how to scrub and clean, do laundry, and bear constant abuse. Their families have become strangers after 10 years of separation. The scars on the outside can fade away, but the school has left each of them with a deep, ragged wound in the shape of a “craving, insatiable empty place” within.
Maisie turns to increasingly harmful coping mechanisms to hide her internalized pain. Lucy compulsively counts things and clings to the boy she used to pass notes to in school, even as Kenny can’t stop himself from running from her again and again. Clara gets herself wrapped up in a dangerous mission for the American Indian Movement and is brought to a Cree elder’s house to heal. Howie, fresh out of prison after nearly killing the priest who abused the children at school, struggles to reenter a society he was never really a part of to begin with. The lives of these five children intersect again and again as they grow into teenagers, young adults, parents. Together and alone, they learn to grow in the places they have found for themselves, to put down new roots in the soil of their ancestors, to experience the full spectrum of joy and suffering that comes with being alive.
One of the greatest strengths of this book is its handling of intergenerational trauma, not just the trauma that is passed down to the children of residential school survivors, but the trauma of the parents who lost their children to the government and Church, and the trauma of countless generations of ancestors whose stories, traditions, and language cannot be passed on to children locked away from their communities. There is a silence among the survivors that everyone—even the author—refuses to break. The worst of the sexual violence is never actually depicted; survivors recount their experiences to others in the book, but not always to the reader. Knowing that Michelle Good knows, is related to, and has worked with many whom the residential schools have sunk their claws into, the feeling I get from this is respect and protection. Respect for the ones in real life who have to live with this trauma, and protection of the silence in which so many shroud said trauma.
Woven through the trauma are surprisingly light moments of humor: jokes about “Indian school skills” when something needs to be cleaned or stolen, memories of bonding in the dormitory and stealing looks across the invisible wall of gender segregation. The characters live and laugh and make mistakes and take care of each other, and their journeys towards or away from healing are as complicated and nonlinear as yours or mine. Whether haunted by their own pasts or by the friends who didn’t make it out alive, the ways they find forward are so powerful that I felt it healing me through the page.
As much about Indigenous joy as it is about Indigenous pain, this book is a moving and tender portrait of the living effects of the residential schools. It provides a gentle resistance to the whitewashing of history and ongoing struggle to return the remains of Indigenous children to their tribes:
“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. ‘Clara, you’re an indigenous flower. Don’t ever think of yourself as a weed.’”