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Five Little Indians

Cree author Michelle Good talks about the award-winning, residential school story she was compelled to write, why it took nine years and what she's writing next / BY Elizabeth Mitchell / June 18th, 2021


Michelle Good understands the irrelevance of age when it comes to telling a story.

“If you have a story that you feel must be told, what difference does it make if you’re 10 or 90?” she said recently from her home outside Kamloops, B.C. “Don’t allow a number on a birth certificate or the colour of your hair to limit your possibilities.”

Case in point: her multi-award-winning 2020 novel Five Little Indians, which is currently cleaning up on the CanLit prize circuit. It’s already won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in English, and it’s shortlisted for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize and two B.C. and Yukon Book prizes. Last year, it made the long list for the Scotiabank Giller Prize and was a finalist for the Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize.

Michelle Good

 

Not bad for a 64-year-old beginner, although “emerging writer” isn’t entirely accurate. “I don’t think I’m emerging in that sense,” says Good, a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. “I’ve been writing in everything I’ve done throughout my life. I’ve been threatening to write a book for years, telling people who annoyed me, ‘I’m writing a book, you know, and I’m taking notes as we speak.’”

In retrospect, she’s glad it took years to publish the book. “I bring a much more balanced and mature perspective than I would have if I had been writing it as a much younger person.”

Five Little Indians is a story of intergenerational trauma deftly depicted through the braided narratives of Kenny, Lucy, Maisie, Clara and Howie, all survivors of a fictional, church-run, residential school in British Columbia. Each character struggles with ghosts that constantly threaten to destroy them, and some are more successful than others. Their narratives strike a visceral chord that resonates long after the reading is over, and the book couldn’t be more germane given recent discoveries of the remains of hundreds of children at residential-school sites across the country – including those found on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School by the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation.

“I tried to talk about trauma in ways that would open people’s minds about it,” she says. “The Canadian population at large just doesn’t understand why these harms continue to echo through the generations … which is why I wrote the book.”

Although Good didn’t go to residential school, at 13 she went into foster care and experienced situations similar to those of her characters, such as aging out of the system and fending for herself without any guidance or survival skills. Unable to finish high school, Good found her community by working with Indigenous organizations in the mid-1970s, where most of her colleagues were residential-school survivors. “It’s not something I had to learn or create,” she says. “It’s my observations and considerations of my living experiences.”

Michelle Good’s next book is inspired by her great-grandmother, who lived through the North-West Rebellion in 1885. Photo: Kent Wong

 

Good also borrows from her mother’s stories about St. Barnabas Indian Residential School on Onion Lake Cree Nation on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, where, as a child, she saw her friend Lily hemorrhage to death from tuberculosis on the school playground. “I had to honour Lily, and I had to use an example I knew was based in fact,” Good says. “These schools were life and death experiences for the children, no matter how much denial wants to go on. It can’t. The truth of it can’t be changed.”

Told against the dramatic backdrop of Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside neighbourhood in the 1970s, the story weaves grace and humour throughout, despite its dark subject matter. It’s a time and place Good knows well, since she eventually got her high school diploma in Vancouver, then moved on to the University of British Columbia and, later, law school.

While articling in the mid-1990s, she was asked to take on the cases of five residential-school survivors, which led to a small, thriving practice representing former students. “And that’s where it all started.,” she says. “It wasn’t a plan … it’s where it went, and I was happy it did.”

Throughout her hectic legal career, Good continually thought about a book she wanted to write. In 2011 – while still working as a full-time lawyer – she enrolled in UBC’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing with the sole intent of writing the story. “I had no idea what form it would take – creative non-fiction, fiction or a collection of short stories,” she says, “but I knew I had to write it.”

Good eventually decided on fiction because of its latitude for telling the truth without being tied to specific facts. It also provided the freedom to develop the characters and their stories. “I started with Kenny and knew immediately I was going to need more characters in order to adequately represent what I wanted to write about.”

It was essential for Good to show how residential school survivors create community, since many didn’t have family to return to or couldn’t go back because of the trauma they’d endured.

‘’I did the technical work in creating the characters’ psychological injuries, but they were so alive and present. Sometimes I felt more like a scribe than a creator, with stories being told to me by them.”

As she was writing, Good’s son and only child Jay Daniel Good – to whom the book is dedicated – died at 31. “Out of the blue, he just died,” she says, “and they never could find a cause of death.” Navigating unimaginable grief, Good retired from law but managed to complete the MFA program, fuelled by her son’s spirit. The draft of Five Little Indians was her thesis.

Shortly after graduating in 2014, as Good continued to develop the manuscript, a notice popped up in her email for the HarperCollins Publishers/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which offered an agent, advance money and publication as the prize.

“I thought, ‘Why not?’ So, I sent it in,” she says. “And to my great surprise, I won.”

Once the connection with HarperCollins was made, the book clicked  into place. “The title just came to me one day,” she says. “I thought, ‘that’s it.’ It’s a double entendre, in a sense, because my characters are my five little Indians and, at the same time, I wanted right on the cover that this is something that sprung from such deep racism.”

The cover artwork of five silhouettes walking upside down, framed by birch trees, and guided by a full, pink moon is perfectly tailored to Good’s fictional and personal stories.

“I literally gasped when I first saw it,” she says. “My son died on the full moon, and it was a pink moon! It was totally him. I have no doubt in my mind he was ghosting the artist.”

Released in April 2020, Five Little Indians received critical acclaim and nomination after nomination for literary awards. I spoke with Good the day after The Hollywood Reporter announced Prospero Pictures – headed by David Cronenberg’s producer Martin Katz, working with Cree Métis writer Shannon Masters – is set to set to turn the book into a limited TV series.

All the success and attention could be overwhelming, but Good’s humility and her two rescue dogs keep her grounded. “I tell my dogs, ‘I won a prize today!’ They don’t care,” she says matter-of-factly.

Good’s next book is loosely based on her great-grandmother, a niece of the powerful Cree Chief Big Bear, who didn’t meet a non-Indigenous person until she was in her early 20s. As a member of the chief’s band, she was present during the Frog Lake Massacre, part of the Cree uprising during the North-West Rebellion.

“She was born in 1856, which, I think, is lovely because I was born in 1956. It’s going to be crazy, taking place in 1885, such a critical moment in our history,” she says. “I’ll probably have to go into hiding so I can actually write it.”

Like her character Clara, barrelling south down the highway to join the American Indian Movement with Buffy Sainte-Marie blaring out the windows, Good is in full control of her narrative. Taking her rightful place in the country’s literary landscape, she invites us along for the ride. Replete with points of entry for readers to educate themselves, her work as a storyteller has just begun.

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