Zed: The Zoomer Book Club Fab fall fiction, Cree author Michelle Good and Marie Henein writes
Cree author Michelle Good talks about Five Little Indians, the residential-school story she was compelled to write
AT 64, FIRST-TIME author Michelle Good understands the irrelevance of age when it comes to writing a book. “If you have a story that you feel must be told, what difference does it make if you’re 10 or 90?” she said in a recent interview from her home near Kamloops, B.C. Case in point: her 2020 novel Five
Little Indians, which won the Amazon Canada First Novel Award, the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction in English and the Rakuten Kobo Emerging Writer Prize. It is a story of intergenerational trauma told through the braided narratives of residential-school survivors Kenny, Lucy, Maisie, Clara and Howie.
It couldn’t be more germane, given hundreds of unmarked graves were discovered at former residential-school sites run by the Roman Catholic Church in B.C. and Saskatchewan. When Good won the Governor General’s award on June 1, she told The Canadian Press it seemed “petty and selfish” to celebrate when she was mourning the deaths of 215 children whose remains were found days before at the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.
The government-funded schools – run by Christian religious orders – forcibly removed children from their homes and denied their culture. In testimony before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, former students recounted horrific stories of starvation, illness and physical, mental and sexual abuse. At least 4,100 of an estimated 150,000 Inuit, Métis and First Nations children died at the schools during their century-long existence. The last school closed in 1997.
“I tried to talk about trauma in ways that would open people’s minds about it,” explained Good, who is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. “The Canadian population at large just doesn’t understand why these harms continue to echo through the generations.”
The discovery of the unmarked graves sparked a national reckoning, Canada Day celebrations were cancelled out of respect for grieving Indigenous communities, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau repeated his request for Pope Francis to issue a formal apology, which was denied in 2018. Indigenous leaders have a papal audience at the Vatican this December and plan to invite the Pope to come to Canada to make a formal apology in person.
Good’s narrative is informed by survivor stories, particularly from her mother, who attended St. Barnabas Indian Residential School on Onion Lake Cree Nation on the Alberta-Saskatchewan border, where she witnessed her friend Lily hemorrhage to death from tuberculosis. “I had to honour Lily, and I had to use an example I knew was based in fact,” Good said. “These schools were life and death experiences for the children, no matter how much denial wants to go on. … The truth of it can’t be changed.”
After completing her law degree at the University of British Columbia in the mid-1990s, Good took on five residential-school survivor cases, which led to a small, thriving practice. While she was a full-time lawyer, Good enrolled in UBC’s Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing in 2011 to start the story she had been thinking about for years, deciding fiction offered the most latitude for telling the truth. It was essential to show the community residential-school survivors create for themselves, since many had no family to return to or were too traumatized to go home.
“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.”
Shortly after she graduated, Good’s manuscript won the Harper-Collins Publishers/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction, which included an agent, advance money and publication. As for the success that followed, Good, who lives with two rescue dogs, takes it in stride. “I tell my dogs, ‘I won a prize today!’ They don’t care,” she says matter-of-factly.
“I TRIED TO TALK ABOUT TRAUMA IN WAYS THAT WOULD OPEN PEOPLE’S MINDS ABOUT IT.”