by Michelle Good
“There are no English words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge, and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs. Back to who she was before Sister Mary, before the school, before they tried to beat her into a little brown white girl.”
Five Little Indians follows five former residential school students as they try to make new lives for themselves in 1960s Vancouver, while being haunted by the demons of their past. Maisie, Clara, Lucy, Kenny, and Howie are all survivors of the Arrowhead Bay Indian School. Except they don’t always feel like survivors; sometimes they feel like the walking dead. Something in them was taken at Arrowhead Bay that can never be replaced, something broken that can never be repaired. It takes a different form for each of them, but the scars are always there, long after they’ve escaped or aged out of the school. “We were children, me and Lily, and neither of us survived, even though I’m still walking,” Clara explains, reflecting on a friend who died at the school.
Five Little Indians is told from alternating perspectives, usually in the third person, but occasionally in first. I felt this first person POV particularly viscerally in Maisie’s story. We meet Maisie through Lucy, who ages out of the system with nowhere to go and lands on Maisie’s doorstep on the Downtown Eastside. Maisie has been out of the school system for a year, and from Lucy’s perspective, she seems world-wise, and like she has her life together. She has a job, her own apartment, and a kind boyfriend who adores her. But when we get inside Maisie’s head, we are quickly confronted with the pain she is hiding, the cracks in her façade that she is trying so hard to plaster over so that neither her boyfriend nor Lucy will see her messy pain. This is by no means an easy book in any respect, but Maisie’s chapter was one of the hardest, grappling with the fallout of sexual abuse, sexual self-harm, and addiction.
Although she is not a POV character, Mariah’s name heads several chapters in Five Little Indians, and she plays an important role. Clara first meets her when she is run back across the Canadian border after a disastrous attempt to get involved with American Indian Movement. Mariah takes Clara in and, over the course of a winter, helps heal her, not just in body, but in spirit. Through Mariah, Clara finds a way to reconnect with the traditions of her people without the fear and self-hatred that the nuns drove deep into her bones. Although Mariah is not a residential school survivor herself, she represents an important connection back to the heritage the schools tried to brutally sever. She is the unbroken link to which Clara and her generation can reach back and reconnect, but only if they can see past their own pain to take her hand.
Throughout the book there are also other Indigenous secondary characters who did not attend the mission schools for various reasons, sometimes because their families hid them, or because they were Metis and therefore were not required to attend. The bond that grows up among the survivors is of a different sort from those who did not share that terrible experience, and many of them struggle to understand the long shadow it casts. Early in the book, Maisie has a very nice boyfriend, but she cannot accept his love for fear that allowing him close will let him see how broken and soiled she considers herself. Also poignant is Kendra, the daughter of two survivors. Her father was an escapee of the residential school system, but his trauma never allowed him to stop running, so he lives on the move, frequently leaving his family behind. Kendra struggles against the pain this absenteeism causes her and her mother, grappling with what it means to love her father despite his flaws. In many ways, the reader is invited to face these same challenges, to stretch beyond themselves and their own experiences, to understand, in as far as art makes it possible, the terrible pain the residential school system caused, and is still causing the Indigenous community in Canada.
Five Little Indians was defended on Canada Reads 2022 by Christian Allaire, an Ojibway author and fashion writer from Nipissing. The book has been particularly topical this week, as Indigenous activists head to the Vatican in pursuit of an apology from Pope Francis on behalf of the Catholic Church for atrocities committed in the residential school system. Allaire’s defense of the book spoke to the fact that residential schools are often discussed only in a historical context, even though the bodies of lost children are still being exhumed. The echoes of the intergenerational trauma are still being felt and the last residential school did not close until 1996. Allaire’s defense also highlighted the fact that the book is largely set in the aftermath, and therefore focuses not on the trauma itself but on the messy, non-linear attempt to heal.
As the last challenger standing, Malia Baker had a difficult challenge to face against themes as important as truth and reconciliation, something she briefly acknowledged in her opening statement on the final day before pivoting to discuss her own book’s strengths. While there were a few moments this year where defenders spoke about reading as escapism, or the need for hopeful endings, overall this was a panel that really respected the legitimacy of difficult reads. This is also the first year I can recall that the CBC offered a content warning regarding the themes of all the books, and provided accompanying support resources.
Five Little Indians moved quietly through the first half of the week, the only book not to have any votes against it on the first two days, where we saw Life in the City of Dirty Water and What Strange Paradise eliminated. Meanwhile, Christian Allaire consistently cast his vote against Scarborough by Catherine Hernandez. Both books feature a cast of characters from disenfranchised communities, and employ alternating perspectives including both first and third person narration. The structural and thematic similarities led me to suspect this was strategic voting on Allaire’s part, something he confirmed when he appeared for a post-victory interview on Jael Richardson’s Instagram channel. When targeting Scarborough, Allaire narrowed in on the fact that the even larger cast of POV characters made it harder to get to know them compared to the core cast in Five Little Indians. He also spoke to the character of Sylvie and the Beaudoin family, saying that as the only Indigenous characters in the book he found their development lacking, and that Sylvie primarily existed to in the narrative to serve other characters’ stories. Malia Baker attempted to counter this line of argument by highlighting Sylvie’s role a storyteller who is still coming into her own voice during the main events of the book.
It was clear by the third day of debate that both Malia Baker and Mark Tewksbury viewed Five Little Indians as the book to beat if they wanted to head into the finale. They both voted against it, while free agents Suzanne Simard and Tareq Hadhad voted against Washington Black. Due to the tiebreaking rules this left Christian Allaire, who had voted against Scarborough, to have to move his vote to one of the two books up for elimination. Since one of them was his own, naturally he voted to eliminate Washington Black, taking Five Little Indians to the finale against Scarborough. In his final defense, Allaire called on readers to accept a little bit of discomfort in order to empathize with the truths of residential school survivors and enable healing. In an unusually unified final vote, all of the panelists except for Scarborough defender Malia Baker voted to make Five Little Indians the winner of Canada Reads 2022.
If you liked Five Little Indians you might also enjoy:
Birdie by Tracey Lindberg
The Break by Katherena Vermette
Jonny Appleseed by Joshua Whitehead