Monday, March 13, 2023

Review: Five Little Indians by Michelle Good

 Important stories, told poorly.

I think novels are a perfect vehicle for transmission of our history and for education. For this reason, I was excited to pick up a book about survivors of the residential school system. However, crucially, novels also require a degree of craftsmanship and character development that I think was sorely missing here.

I had the sense that the author had a dozen beats that she was trying to work into the novel: the mother questioned for her ability to take care of her child just because she was indigenous; the son learning that the mother from whom he was taken had written a letter every single day to find out when she could see him again, rather than abandoning him as he had assumed; the daughter of a survivor learning about the abuses her father suffered, and reassessing her judgement of her mother and of her father because of this; the young woman kicked out of the residential school without guidance or resources upon turning sixteen. A narrative of dry, lifeless prose, and one-dimensional stock characters are thrown together to link these moments.

Here's an example of the prose we are working with in this book:

The agent prepared a list of modest homes within a ten-block radius of Frances Street for Lucy to consider. After a week and a half, Lucy made an offer on a neat postwar bungalow with three bedrooms, a fenced-in yard and a kitchen laid out much like the one at the Frances Street house but bigger, with new appliances and cabinets. She signed the papers and she and Clara went home and waited.

Kendra arrived that evening as the nervous women thought for sure they wouldn’t get it at their low offer even though the agent had been confident. By half past eight, they’d still heard nothing.

Lucy shrugged and wrapped her sweater around herself. “Well, I guess that’s that. Too bad, I liked that place. Good for grandchildren. Close to the elementary school.”

Clara winked at Kendra. “Better get busy, Grandma here’s making plans.”

Kendra laughed. “Oh no. I can’t even imagine being a mom.”

The phone interrupted their laughter. Lucy took the receiver off the hook while Clara crossed her fingers and Kendra wiggled in her chair with anticipation.

“Okay. Okay. Yes. Sure. Okay. Yes, that would be fine. See you tomorrow.”

“Well?” Kendra was bursting.

Lucy threw her hands in the air. “We got it!”

“That is so fantastic.” Clara lifted her teacup in a toast. “To Kenny.”
We have several paragraphs of mechanically presented details that provide little insight into the characters or their world (this passage is told through Lucy's eyes, could you guess?). There's an exchange of a mother hoping for grandchildren that is so trite it almost reads like satire (but is presented without irony). Then, finally, we have a moment of intense emotion but it's presented with overused phrases and imagery like "bursting" and "threw her hands in the air." It feels a little amateur, the type of writing I used to encounter when I regularly read fanfiction. What I'd hoped would be an emotional but educational read was rather frustratingly boring.

A welcome exception was the Maisie chapter, which works as a standalone short story. I liked how the author slowly revealed what Maisie meant by the phrase "Jimmy's girl." At it's face, a nervous young woman's attempt to try to please her boyfriend. Jimmy likes minimal make-up, simple hair barrettes. Jimmy cares about her. Jimmy is a little pushy about her boundaries. Jimmy doesn't understand the residential school system. "Jimmy's girl" is someone that hasn't been chewed up and spat out by the residential school system. "Jimmy's girl" is something Maisie wants to be, but can't be, because years of sexual abuse have made it so that she can't see herself as someone lovable.

I imagine that it has long been difficult to get this type of writing published. With increasing recognition of the horror of the residential school systems, I hope we will get to see more of this sort of perspective. I loved the 2013 collection of shorts Islands of Decolonial Love: Stories & Songs. I'll not read too much into why this novel won so much recognition from Canadian literature institutions, and will instead view it as a stumbling learning step in a growing body of literature.

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