It’s tough to review a book written by an Indigenous author about an important subject (residential schools and their traumatic legacy) and not sound like an asshole when you don’t love it. I had the same problem with The Nickel Boys. Five Little Indians, by Canadian lawyer and first time novelist Michelle Good, won the Governor General’s Literary Award and the Amazon First Novel prize and the book was well-reviewed.
And I am not going to crap all over it because there were some things I did like about the book, which follows five people who were sent to residential school as children and then were either released or escaped into 1960s Vancouver. The novel doesn’t spend much time at the school itself, but we learn enough to see how Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie and Maisie suffer at the hands of the priest and the nuns, particularly Sister Mary. And suffer, they did.
The majority of the book follows these five characters after they’ve left the school, their lives intersecting as they try to make sense of a world they know next to nothing about. They are without skills, without family and really, without an education. The only thing they really have is trauma and that follows them throughout their lives.
Each of these five characters has a different experience once they are away from the school. Maisie, for example, seems to have it all together when another survivor, Lucy, arrives at her door. Maisie had gone home after she was released. “I lasted a month. No matter how hard I tried, this place, their house, was no longer home, and these people, though kind and loving, were like strangers pretending to be family.” She deals with her trauma by having sex in an alley with “The Old Man”, someone who berates her as he’s having sex with her, calling her the names the priest had called her as he raped her. “These were Father’s words. They took the rhythm of his thrusts. And I couldn’t breathe without this. I didn’t exist without this.”
Lucy fares a little bit better, going to school to become a nurse until she discovers that she is pregnant with the child of another survivor, Kenny, a boy she loved at the Mission school. They love each other, but Kenny has his own demons and try as he might, he just can’t stay with Lucy.
I did love each of these characters; that wasn’t my issue with the book. I just felt as though I was being told their story rather than shown it. This might have been remedied by sticking more closely with one character and having the others drift into their orbit. I felt like there was so much more that I wanted to know about each of them, but their tales felt somehow superficial – even though their individual trauma certainly wasn’t.
I finished reading Five Little Indians on the National Day for Truth and Reconciliation which “honours the children who never returned home and Survivors of residential schools, as well as their families and communities. Public commemoration of the tragic and painful history and ongoing impacts of residential schools is a vital component of the reconciliation process.” Personally, I think we have a long way to go to make things right.