Growing up, a survivor meant one thing – a person who survived the Holocaust. For me this meant a person who somehow escaped murder by the Nazis, and then went on to live a life in Canada. It did not give any thought to what that life looked like upon their arrival, what memories haunted them, what losses they lived with, or how any of that impacted their day to day functioning. I learned more about this as I grew up and heard the stories of survivors.
In Canada today, we talk about survivors of residential schools. I’d like to elide the question of comparing one group of survivors to another, and how those experiences do or don’t compare, either during or after. What I did think about a lot, when reading Michele Good’s powerful novel Five Little Indians, was what it means to live as a survivor, not simply the fact of surviving, and the way her book got me thinking not only about survivors in her community, but in ours as well.
Five Little Indians tracks the story of five survivors of residential schools in Canada over a 35 year period. Only a small amount of the book actually describes their experiences at the school itself, though the protagonists often refer to and reflect on the pain of their experiences. All of the characters struggle in their post-residential school world. They struggle in the most basic ways – to find a place to live and consistent, decent work. But they are more deeply plagued by their memories, traumas, and history. Some find a way through those struggles to a more calm, functional, meaningful life, while for others, the patterns of self-destruction have run too deep. They are all survivors, and this is a story of how they lived as survivors.
Five Little Indians is a painful book, and a powerful story. As a book of literature, it is important for the broader perspective it offers. It also gives a deep and empathetic understanding of the experience of Indigenous Canadians, and the impacts of the residential school system. These are stories we should all be reading, to better understand the country we live in, and the people we live with.
Just Because I Liked It:
- Please watch this short, powerful video, to help us think more about being empathetic, and realize how much we don’t know about what’s going on in the lives of those around us.
- How does one go on after a major life trauma? Listen to this inspiring interview with Rivka Shotkin who became a paraplegic at age 14 (she’s now 17), and her incredibly positive perspective, full of emunah and wisdom. This was recommended by my 17 year old daughter Shevi, and was also enjoyed by Koby (grade 2) – listen to it with your kids!