Today we are pleased to kick off our special coverage of the 2020 Governor General's Award winners (English-language) with an interview with Michelle Good, whose Five Little Indians (Harper Perennial/HarperCollins) won the fiction prize.
Enter for a chance to win Five Little Indians as well and don't miss the excerpt at the end of this post!
“Intimate and ambitious, Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians is a heart-breaking account of lives shaped and destroyed by the residential school system. Here is powerful testimony, expertly crafted and wisely observed, tragic yet full of redemptive moments. An unflinching, compassionate and moving novel about the struggle to live and love in the wake of deep trauma.”—2020 Governor General’s Award Peer Assessment Committee
Michelle Good is a Cree writer and a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. After working for Indigenous organizations for twenty-five years, she obtained a law degree and advocated for residential school survivors for over fourteen years. Good earned a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of British Columbia while still practising law and managing her own law firm. Her poems, short stories, and essays have been published in magazines and anthologies across Canada, and her poetry was included on two lists of the best Canadian poetry in 2016 and 2017. Five Little Indians, her first novel, won the HarperCollins/UBC Best New Fiction Prize, the Amazon First Novel Award, and the Governor General’s Award for Fiction. Michelle Good now lives and writes in the southern interior of British Columbia.
Five Little Indians explores the lives of five residential school survivors: Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, and Maisie. Can you talk more about how their very particular stories came to life for you?
I looked to the kinds of experiences survivors had in these institutions and extrapolated how those abusive experiences would impact them throughout their lives. Then I created the world they were walking out of as well as the world they were walking into and told the stories of how challenging it would be to make even a modest life carrying such intense psychological injury.
What challenges or obstacles did you face fictionalizing a story based in part on one of the darkest chapters in Canadian history?
The greatest challenge was presenting these stories in a way that demonstrates that the suffering is not an historical thing—that it is now, present in the lives of survivors, including intergenerational survivors and in their communities.
This is your debut novel. Among other accolades, it was recently awarded the Amazon Canada First Novel Award. What have been some of the highs and lows of publishing your debut novel during a pandemic?
Five Little Indians being my debut novel, I really don’t have anything to compare it to. I am not sure that the pandemic has been a relative factor, positive or negative.
What does it mean for you at this point in your career to win the Governor General’s Award for Fiction at this point in your career?
It is of course a tremendous honour to be recognized in this way. It is very satisfying to see this book embraced as it has been. In terms of awards, the most important thing to me is that every nomination elevates the book in the public consciousness. With that there are more readers and hopefully more hearts and minds understanding the real impacts of Residential Schools.
49thShelf is built around a community of readers and fans of Canadian literature. What Canadian authors are you reading these days?
Tom King’s new book Sufferance.
Excerpt from Five Little Indians
When they let me out of the Mission School, Sister travelled with me all the way to Vancouver and put me on a boat that was supposed to take me home. There were seven of us girls from the Mission School and another twelve boys and girls from other Indian Schools who joined up with us to catch the boat and head back up north to our coastal village. Ten years had passed since they’d dragged me away from my mom, kicking and screaming, and it was the last time I’d seen her or my dad. When we got to our village, tired, cold and hungry, we were herded off the boat in single file. Standing on the beach at the end of the dock were a group of men and women, milling around and looking to the dock as we walked toward them. For a moment the two groups just stood there—kids on the dock, parents on the sand. Then a boy from one of the other schools broke and ran, calling out for his dad. The rest of us ran too, right into that crowd of grown-ups who were supposed to be our parents. We were all pretty much as tall as them now and everyone was looking at everyone else, looking for something familiar, something to recognize. I didn’t know what to do, so I just stood there, hoping one of them was my mom and that she would recognize me. I couldn’t pick her out in the crowd. A woman approached me, gently asking if I was Sally. No. Not me. Finally, I noticed a woman, her hair wrapped tight in a pale-blue scarf, standing at the edge of the group looking straight at me. I knew. It was my mom. Arms open, she ran for me, crying.
My mom took me home and gave me tasty things to eat. My dad was out fishing, she said, but would be back in the morning. She said they weren’t really sure I would be there that day. The house was smaller than in my memory, but familiar, and the whole evening I just wanted to cry as I took it all in, the place I had been dreaming about for ten years. My dad came home the next morning and held me so tight. He smelled of woodsmoke and fish, and that primal smell tumbled me back in time to a thin memory of me and my mom meeting him at the dock, him tossing me in the air, me laughing so hard my belly hurt. He would carry me home like I weighed nothing, my face in the crook of his neck, rough sea salt rubbing off on my face. They told me that after I was taken, no one told them where I was. They still didn’t know which school I’d been sent to. I couldn’t help but wonder if they’d tried to find out. They must have. But the angry question kept rising in me anyway, and their constant affection began to disgust me.
I lasted a month. No matter how hard I tried, this place, their house, was no longer home, and these people, though kind and loving, were like strangers pretending to be family. I hitched a ride on a trawler to Prince Rupert and took a bus to Vancouver, with the hundred dollars my dad pressed into my hand as my mother stood by, crying.
Not so long ago I was at the Balmoral and met a girl from up there. After the expected ritual sharing of who your aunties and uncles are, she told me she was sorry about my mom. I didn’t know, but she didn’t need to say more. I had so many dreams at the Indian School about going home to her. Dreams about sleeping safe in my own room, playing on the beach at ease and without fear, and cooking with her. What I so desperately needed was to be standing on that stool by the stove, carefully stirring under her watchful eye like when I was little. To be little again, living without fear and brutality—no one gets that back. All that’s left is a craving, insatiable empty place.
Excerpt from Five Little Indians by Michelle Good ©2020. Reprinted with permission of the author and HarperCollins Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.
[AUTHOR PHOTO CREDIT: Candice Camille]