On his next attempt, Kenny manages to connect with an uncle, who believes Kenny’s accounts of abuse at the school, and after Kenny shows him the bruises and marks he has sustained, Uncle Clifford agrees to not return the boy to the school, risking the penalty for breaking the law. In turn, Uncle Clifford shares stories about how other family members circumvented the government’s attendance requirement.
“You know, me and your mom, we never had to go to the Indian School. Your grandfather made sure of that. He would take us out on his fishing boat every fall for a few days when they were coming to collect the kids. Never wrote our names down anywhere so the government didn’t have us on their list.” Clifford picked up the shirt and wrapped it around Kenny’s shoulders. “We knew it was no good, but not this.”
Technically, knowing that Kenny escapes is a spoiler, but it happens within a few pages of the opening, and many readers are reluctant to engage with stories about the residential school system, whether its reality or its legacy, so I think t’s important to convey that this is not a one-note story. One reason for Five Little Indians’ emotional breadth is that the novel focuses on several characters. When one character’s story arc is particularly sad, there is the possibility that the next chapter will offer a shift in perspective and tone.
“They told us you drowned.”
“Naw, I made it. All the way home.”
“We talked about you for years. At night, after Brother went to sleep. We imagined you free while we ran for those bells.”
But what good can come of a heritage of genocidal policies and practices, how can this story be anything but tragic and despairing? Because the descendants of residential school survivors continue to resist, continue to strive to protect their cultures and their traditions. There is sorrow in Michelle Good’s debut novel and there are losses, but there is also exhilaration and there are triumphs. One of these triumphs is the capacity to share and distribute and honour ancestral stories. The other part of Michelle Good’s dedication is this: “So much love to my father, William Stanley Stiff, who gave me a fascination for language, a drive to understand the power of words and a love of reading.”
The Five Little Indians’ longlisting for this year’s Giller Prize will broaden the amount of attention it garners from readers. You can read it as an act of witness, as a small act of reconciliation—with this, to see just how much of these characters’ experience has been historically documented, or simply as a collection of linked narratives which moves across time and space to move present-day readers.
(And, if you want to read other stories about the residential school system, consider Swampy Cree writer, David Alexander Roberston’s Seven Generations: Stones, Scares, Ends/Begins (2012), or Bev Sellars’ They Called Me Number One (a Soda Creek/Deep Creek Xat’sull First Nation writer), Up Ghost River by Cree Fort Albany First Nation writer, Edmund Metatawabin with Alexdra Shimo, or Wenjack by Joseph Boyden (of Ojibwe/Nipmuc/Métis/Scottish-Irish descent.)