The ecstasy of Michelle Good
December 03rd, 2020
The phenomenon of truthfully representing Indigenous realities in Canada started with Summerland playwright George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, published by Talonbooks in 1970. That same year B.C. writer Alan Fry published How A People Die (Doubleday) an important book that has been deep-sixed because it faced criticism for being racist.
Jeannette Armstrong and Lee Maracle coincidentally broke new ground for Indigenous authors in fiction. Then Niakapmux author Shirley Sterling received the Sheila A. Egoff Children’s Literature Prize in 1993 for My Name Is Seepeetza (Groundwood, 1992), the story of Martha Stone, aka Seepeetza, who struggles to reconcile cruelties at the Kamloops Residential School.
Starting with Martha Douglas Harris (youngest daughter of Sir James Douglas) and Pauline Johnson, there are now more than 250 Indigenous authors included on the ABCBookWorld reference site for B.C. authors, giving rise to the Indigenous Literary Map of B.C.
Far-sighted B.C. publishers have been leading the way for the rest of the country for at least five decades. Celia Haig-Brown’s Resistance and Renewal: Surviving the Indian Residential School was published in 1988. There are more than 2,000 books concerning First Nations listed on the ABCBookWorld reference site.
There are at least 100 books from B.C. that seriously examine and/or convey the realities of residential schools. Bev Sellars’ bestseller They Called Me Number One recalled life at the St. Joseph’s Residential School in Williams Lake. B.C. Larry Loyie’s stories and plays arose from his experiences at St. Bernard’s Mission residential school in Grouard, Alberta. And so on.
Nonetheless, books from Ontario and the U.S. about residential schools are now being touted as ground-breaking.
Longlisted for the Giller Prize and shortlisted for the Rogers Writers’ Trust Fiction Prize, and nominated for the Writers Trust New Fiction Award, all based in Toronto, Five Little Indians (Harper Collins $22.99) by Michelle Good, chronicles the lives of five residential school classmates (Kenny, Lucy, Clara, Howie, Maisie) who, after attending an unidentified Mission School, gravitate towards Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.
Kenny (looked upon as a hero because he escaped) is a drifter and an addict. Clara is radicalized by the American Indian Movement (AIM). Howie is imprisoned. Maisie chronically flirts with danger. Lucy pines for Kenny and has a secret compulsive disorder.
The novel does not concentrate on details of degradations endured; rather Good sympathetically outlines five decades of attempted recovery.
Good is Nehiyaw (Plains Cree) from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan. She spent time in the summers at the Red Pheasant Reserve, southeast of North Battleford, and gradually learned about her mother Martha (Eliza) Soonias’s residential school experiences. Most notably, her mother once refused to eat bread soaked in cat urine. Sent to the principal’s office, at age 12, she was told she was “nothing but an Indian slut and she would never be anything but an Indian slut.” With a scholarship, her mother eventually became a nanny for a wealthy Toronto family, traveled the world and trained as a midwife and nurse in New Zealand.
Good is a Kitimat-raised, Kamloops-based lawyer who received her law degree at age 43. She has since specialized in advocating for residential school survivors. She received a Masters in Writing in 2014 from UBC, where she chiefly wrote the novel. She became the recipient of the HarperCollins/UBC Prize for Best New Fiction in 2018.
Photo of Michele Good by Kent Wong.