From the opening lines of Five Little Indians, debut author Michelle Good prepares readers. There are snares and ghosts, silvery and summery glimmers, and there is also warmth. (There’s also the requisite discussion of semantics—‘Indian’ or ‘Aboriginal’—reminding readers that nomenclature and self-identification is not a matter of consensus in communities.)

The novel opens with Kenny’s story, his attempts to run away from residential school. Michelle Good is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and her author’s note explains that she views this novel as a tribute to her mother, “Martha Eliza Soonias Stiff, who lived through the hell of one of these schools.” Good writes: “Her tenacity taught me courage; her stories echo here.”

Kenny demonstrates tenacity and courage as well. Readers meet him after he has been returned to the school, when it seems like he will return to the regular, daily routine—but Kenny is already plotting his next escape. Observing his resilience and determination is a reminder that the history taught by (and to) settlers does not typically include successful stories of resistance to genocidal policies and practices.

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.)

In 2006, Vincent Lam won the prize for Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures, which is also part novel and part collection of stories (although Michelle Good’s narratives are more tightly linked and Five Little Indians has been marketed as a novel); however, this year’s jury did not advance this novel to the shortlist.

Inner workings
Michelle Good deftly shifts between perspectives, re-situating readers with each chapter, delicately balancing the need to reacquaint (there are several characters and not all readers enjoy multiple voices) with the need to propel readers through the story development. This is my favourite kind of storytelling.

Mostly the language is direct, unadorned. “Once there, she leaned against a lamppost, watching the hookers come and go, hurrying back toward Hastings hoping they had enough time for another trick. The johns left bedraggled and shameful, looking this way and that, hoping for no witnesses.” But, an occasional sensory detail enriches the story: “The ceramic mugs clattered against the uneven tile, like the endless clicking of Sister’s rosary beads, slapping against the stiff folds of her rustling habit.”

The residential school system lurks behind this story, but the settings are varied and recognizable. “The morning sun slowly filled the porch and Clara could feel John Lennon staring at her in an urgent silence. She opened her eyes and he smiled at her, his ears half down, tail thumping the floor.” (Also—the way she writes about dogs!)

Opening with Kenny’s story is a winning move, because it would hard to set aside the book after that point. It’s taken so much gumption and will-power for this boy to escape that it would be churlish not to see what lies ahead for him. Her style, too—neither spare nor sentimental—strikes just the right balance to sustain readers’ interest.

Readers Wanted
Maybe you enjoy a good solo act, but you love a chorus of voices too.
You’re looking for a gateway to understanding some aspects of contemporary indigenous life.
You’ve named a companion animal for a rock star.
“How many others can’t bear their own thoughts? They need to hear the truth.”


This book is a nominee for the 2020 Giller Prize. This post follows a format I first used in 2012. Prizelists invite readers to peer more closely at current publications; they can spark conversation, draw attention to hard-working writers, and encourage readers to look beyond these lists to the many, many other works of quality that are not included on longlists. Reading the longlisted books represents less than 5% of my year’s reading. Read widely and share your favourites!