Michelle Good says her book “Five Little Indians” is her response to a frustrating question that often comes up in discussions about Indigenous people and Canada’s residential schools: “Why can’t they just get over it?”
As an advocate, lawyer and daughter of a residential school survivor, Good says the devastating long-term impacts of the government-run system are woven into the fabric of her life.
Good, a member of Red Pheasant Cree Nation west of Saskatoon, says she drew from these experiences in crafting her acclaimed debut novel, “Five Little Indians,” with a braided narrative that shifts focus from the historic infliction of harm to how Indigenous people carry that trauma with them into the present day.
“The question, why can’t they just get over it? The answer isn’t in the horror of the abuse,” says Good, 64, from Savona, west of Kamloops, B.C. “The answer is in how that continues to play out, both with the survivor directly and intergenerationally and at a community level.”
“Five Little Indians,” from HarperCollins Publishers, traces the intersecting journeys of a group residential school survivors in east Vancouver as they work to rebuild their lives and come to grips with their pasts.
The book won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award on Thursday and is up for a Governor General’s prize this coming Tuesday, earning Good the rare distinction of being a sexagenarian up-and-coming author.
Now an adjudicator, Good says she first began working on the novel about a decade ago while juggling her law practice and her studies at University of British Columbia’s creative writing program.
While she may have come to writing later in life, Good says fiction has given her the freedom to explore truths that transcend the evidentiary rigours of the legal process.
“A thing need not be factual to be true,” says Good, who used to run a small law firm and has represented residential school survivors.
“One of the reasons people respond to this book is that it’s true, if not factual, on a very, very visceral level.”
As part of her writing process, Good says she studied hundreds of psychological assessments of survivors of childhood physical and sexual abuse to better understand how these injuries can shape a person’s trajectory.
She says this research informed how the central characters of “Five Little Indians” cope with the life-altering aftershocks of being torn away from their families and communities and forced into a system designed to “take the Indian out of the child.”
“The whole point of the book is how difficult it is to live with those impacts from the harm of walking out of those schools just burdened with psychological injury, and facing lack of support, lack of resources (and) racism,” says Good.
“It’s something that went directly to the fabric of Indigenous community and did profound damage.”
Since its 2020 publication, “Five Little Indians” has been making the rounds on the literary prize circuit, securing spots on the Giller long list and Writers’ Trust short list last fall.
Good also achieved the unusual feat of scoring three major awards nods in a single day in early May.
“Five Little Indians” won the $60,000 First Novel Award this week, is in the running for the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize next month, and is among several heavyweight finalists for the Governor General’s Literary Awards, to be announced Tuesday.
Others vying for the $25,000 prize in the Governor General’s fiction category are Guelph, Ont.-based Thomas King for “Indians on Vacation,” from HarperCollins Canada; Halifax’s Francesca Ekwuyasi with “Butter Honey Pig Bread,” from Arsenal Pulp Press; Leanne Betasamosake Simpson for “Noopiming: The Cure for White Ladies,” from House of Anansi Press; and Toronto-born Lisa Robertson for “The Baudelaire Fractal,” from Coach House Books.
Good says the awards acclaim has been “tremendously satisfying.” But most meaningful of all is the reception the book has received from residential school survivors and their families who recognize their own stories in the characters Good created, she says.
“It’s my love letter to survivors,” says Good. “I feel like that’s something I can be proud of till the day I move on.”