Author: Michelle Good
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pub. Date: Apr. 2020 (read Jun. 2021)
It’s been months since I read Five Little Indians, but I think it is a very important book and I do want to take some time to review it. It’s been getting a lot of press since over 200 children were found buried at the Kamloops Residential School (and thousands more since), shocking many Canadians, but not many indigenous people.
As the title suggests, Five Little Indians follows the lives of 5 survivors of a residential school on the north part of Vancouver Island. Some of these children aged out of the school, while others ran away or were smuggled away by family members. All suffer trauma as a result of the experience and many of the survivors end up in the Downtown Eastside (DTES) in Vancouver.
This is not an easy book to read and that is the way it should be. It doesn’t focus so much on the atrocities committed within residential schools (though they are still featured), but more on the long term trauma that comes with having survived such an experience during your most formative childhood years. The impact the schools had not only on the children, but on parents and entire communities.
When the children leave the school, some of them are lucky enough to have families to return home to, while others have no one and are forced to try and make it on their own at just 17 or 18 years of age. Some of the teens find each other in the DTES and create a new little family, but struggle emotionally and financially, turning to alcohol, drugs, and sex to cope with the trauma and memories they are saddled with from school. Those that are able to return home find that they are returning to families that have been just as broken by the loss of their children to the schools.
Family members turn to their own coping mechanisms and the teens find it hard to return to a culture and community that they now feel divorced from. The role of residentials schools was to “kill the Indian” in the child. The government and the Church succeed in this mission by cutting out the heart of indigenous communities and creating shameful cultural associations in the children. This separation traumatizes the community and the shame of the abuse perpetrated against the children makes it hard for many to return home at all. They have been abused mentally and physically and no longer have any kind of self worth, making it hard to be with the people who love them, even if those people have suffered in their own way.
The writing is simple and I found it effective in that it doesn’t sugarcoat anything. The storyline does a great job of shining a light on the long term impact of residential schools and how many aspects of the schools are still alive in society today. Many would argue that our child welfare system has basically just replaced the schools, with indigenous children still regularly being removed from their families at disproportionate rates – families still suffering from the trauma of residential schools. I recently finished reading The Strangers by Katherena Vermette, which I also think does a really good job at exploring the ways in which indigenous people are still marginalized today.
Everything about this book made me feel uncomfortable and that is kind of the point. Reconciliation is a big and uncertain topic and to think we can attempt it without feeling very uncomfortable is folly. I’ve been trying to work my way through more indigenous literature this year and welcome any other recommendations.