Michelle Good's acclaimed novel Five Little Indians looks at the legacy of residential schools
Five Little Indians is on the Canada Reads 2022 longlist
This interview originally aired on May 9, 2020.
Michelle Good has been thinking about the impact of residential schools since she was a child. The Cree writer and lawyer is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan and both her mother and grandmother survived residential school.
Five Little Indians, her debut novel, chronicles the desperate quest of these residential school survivors to come to terms with their past and, ultimately, find a way forward. The novel was one of the top 10 bestselling Canadian books of 2021.
Five Little Indians won the 2020 Governor General's Literary Award for fiction and the 2021 Amazon Canada First Novel Award. It was also on the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize longlist and the the 2020 Writers's Trust Fiction Prize shortlist.
Fiction based on real life
"My mother is a residential school survivor, as is my grandmother and cousins. I started writing this story in the 1990s. I think the seed really took shape really came to me when I was practicing law and I was representing survivors of residential schools. I was realizing just how much Canadians or Canada at large doesn't understand the impact of how these individuals suffered because of their attendance at these schools.
It occurred to me that this needed to be told as a story — as something that people could engage in — with more ease than a factual diatribe.
"The thing that I was observing was that we could communicate the facts of the number of children that were forced to attend school and the manner in which they were forced to attend school.
"It occurred to me that this needed to be told as a story — as something that people could engage in — with more ease than a factual diatribe."
Reality and lived experience
"I am of mixed heritage. My mother is Cree; she married a non-Indigenous person at a time when that resulted in her losing her status and me being born without status. I grew up in a non-Indigenous environment.
"The way that my mother communicated about residential school is she spoke about it as being boarding school. But as I was growing up in a non-Indigenous context — and reading British stories about boarding school — the concept was something that was very different in my mind.
My mother is Cree; she married a non-Indigenous person at a time when that resulted in her losing her status and me being born without status.
"As I got a little bit older, my mother started telling stories to me and it was shocking. The one that stuck with me and is represented in some ways in the novel is a story about a little girl hemorrhaging to death from tuberculosis."
"These stories were told to me in a very matter-of-fact way. I was horrified by them and it set me on an inquiry about what happened to my mother. I began to think about how that resonates in a person's life — how it resonates through the generations and how it resonates today in our communities in virtually every respect.
There was never an intention to write about the experiences in the school, except as backdrop for what it's like for these people when they leave the school.
"There was never an intention to write about the experiences in the school, except as backdrop for what it's like for these people when they leave the school.
I wanted to paint a picture of what it was like to be taken from your family — and to be brought back into the world with no support — while you are suffering and struggling under profound traumatic impact."
Michelle Good's comments have been edited for length and clarity.