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Surviving after leaving the residential schools

Chase author Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians, is up for two prestigious writing prizes.
Michelle Good Five Little Indians book
Michelle Good’s debut novel, Five Little Indians, tells the story of five young students at residential school in British Columbia.

A Chase author long-listed for the Giller Prize is now a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Michelle Good’s debut novel is Five Little Indians, the stories of five residential school survivors living their lives and enduring the hardships brought on by trauma.

The realities of her characters are close to Good, who not only has a personal connection to them — basing some of their stories on parts of her own — but has also spent decades working as an advocate for residential school survivors.

“The biggest part of it is that I am an intergenerational survivor. My mother went to residential school, my grandmother went to residential school, my aunties, uncles, cousins, friends,” she said.

“In fact, if my mother hadn’t lost her status by marriage, I would have been in residential school.”

Good said she is a born writer and has been writing about the damage done by residential schools since the 1980s.

While this novel is her first, she is an accomplished poet, with recent works included in prestigious collections, such as her poem Defying Gravity in Best Canadian Poetry 2016.

In fact, Five Little Indians was published because of its winning status.

In 2018, Good’s manuscript for the book won the Harper Collins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize while she was completing her master of fine arts degree at the University of British Columbia.

“I’m kind of gobsmacked, I have to say,” she told KTW from her home in Chase.

Good spent nine years writing Five Little Indians and felt obligated to do so.

“I wrote this book because I am so sick and tired of hearing that refrain in online comments and general Canadian society of, “Why can’t they just get over it?” she said, referring to the ongoing dialogue of those who suffered at the hands of an establishment that took children from their homes.

Good said much has been written about the time children spent within residential schools and the abuse suffered there, but less has been about what it’s like trying to survive after school.

The book is set in the late 1960s, 1970s and onward in Vancouver, which is where Good lived in foster care during those years, eventually aging out of the system and being put out on her own.

“You hear a fair bit about that these days, about trying to find supports for kids aging out of foster care,” she said. “But it wasn’t given a second thought in those days. You hit 18, you were on your own. If you didn’t have a nickel in your pocket, too bad.”

The paths of the titular Five Little Indians cross over decades in the novel as their past trauma haunts them.

But while the book is full of hard stories, Good said it is also full of love and “the ultimate hope, the resilience and the amazing ability to survive in spite of everything.”

One story the book doesn’t tell, however, is that of the abusers.

Good said an early draft of the book contained more detailed descriptions of abuse, physical and sexual, levelled against the subjects of her book. Later drafts removed those details.

“The reason I took it out was not for fear of horrifying my gentle readers, it was that I didn’t want to give any room to those abusers. I didn’t want to give them any place in this work. It’s not their story,” she said.

Good will learn the outcome of her Writer’s Trust prize nomination on Nov. 18. But she isn’t waiting for more accolades.

She is already several chapters into her next book and hasn’t let any of her success go to her head, staying mindful of the technique that got her to where she is now.

“A lot of it involves living quietly and observing carefully — and remembering,” Good said.

Five Little Indians is available at Chapters and other bookstores. It is also available online here.