One Dark Story, That One

As long as there are Canadians who, like the incumbent leader of the Official Opposition, will insist that the function of the Indian Residential Schools was to “provide education,” we will continue to need books like Michelle Good’s Five Little Indians.

Do not let the novel’s nondescript title put you off. In this stunning debut, Red Pheasant Cree author Michelle Good confronts us with the question of what it means to be a survivor. Rather than dwelling on the horror of the schools themselves (a move that the disappointing Clint Eastwood-produced film adaptation of Richard Wagamese’s Indian Horse was all too keen to make, for instance), the novel focuses on the aftermath for the children who fought for their lives both in and beyond the walls of an institution that was designed to leave them with nothing. For the five titular children, survival comes in many forms—each of them flawed, but no less vital. Kenny, the boy who steals a boat and escapes back to a home that has transformed beyond recognition, leads a transient life that pulls him away from family and fatherhood. Lucy, branded as a liar for daring to call out the Mission Father as a sexual predator, has to build a safe home from the ground up after being abandoned in downtown Vancouver at age sixteen. Maisie, a witness to Lucy’s abuse at the school, juggles civilian and sex work but cannot cope with the ensuing shame and stigma. Howie, who serves hard time for enacting brutal revenge on one of the Mission Brothers, works to regain his footing as an ex-con. And Clara, whose storyline echoes the classic activist narratives of Jeanette Armstrong and Lee Maracle, finds solace in the pursuit of justice, first with the Red Power movement and later with the Native Courtworkers’ Association. For these characters, to survive is to fight and rebuild, while the cost of forever having to fight and rebuild is to feel as though one has scarcely lived at all.

While the bulk of the narrative concerns the generation of residential school survivors who came of age in the 1960s, the novel’s most piercing and heartbreaking moments deal with the uneasy collisions between generations that have come to define survival in much different ways. We watch, for example, as Lucy and Kenny’s respective traumas pass on to their daughter Kendra, who grows up to resent her semi-absent father. As a second-generation survivor (a more recent label that the novel, appropriate to its time period, does not use), Kendra inherits the same devastating message that the residential schools had previously imparted on her parents: that your elders cannot and will not be there to protect you. Kendra’s emotional arc, however brief, is a poignant reflection on the urgency of restoring trust within fractured kinship networks, a process which begins with re-storying the bonds that were forcibly broken with the separation of children from their parents. It is also a testament to the radical forms of empathy that second- and third-generation survivors like Good and myself have to perform in coming to terms with why our families and communities have come to be as they are. We as inheritors cannot change or fully understand what happened to our parents and grandparents in those schools, but we are the ones who must carry on the story into an uncertain future nonetheless.

Good navigates the multi-generational scope of these stories in a familiar, but tricky fashion. Reminiscent of the episodic story cycles that Chippewa author Louise Erdrich and Plains Cree novelist Dawn Dumont pioneered in their early works, Five Little Indians has to strike a delicate balance between characters, nations, and time periods spanning from the early sixties to the mid-nineties. In doing so, Good is able to track the long genocidal footprint of the residential schools along lines that have tended to slip through the cracks of more formal histories. We witness it in the fleeting reunions between childhood friends who had long thought each other dead; in the survivors’ competing impulses to nurture and to lash out at the world around them; and again in the warped senses of parental and communal responsibility that the characters are left to learn for themselves. It is for precisely these reasons that Good chooses fiction over non-fiction as the ideal medium for this project. The trade-off with this approach is that certain characters and their storylines are more thoroughly defined than others.

Thomas King’s latest novel Indians on Vacation, conversely, has the unfortunate distinction of being the right book at the wrong time. If a book-length riff on the banality of prefab tour itineraries feels like an inopportune prospect during a global pandemic that has killed both tourism and the dream of blissful retirement, then surely the author himself would be the first to lament the disastrous timing. Still, all of King’s usual strengths and preoccupations as a storyteller remain on display in Indians on Vacation. His ear for off-kilter dialogue, centred on characters who talk over and past each other, is as sharp as ever. His knack for corralling historical and intertextual references as seemingly disparate as Sitting Bull at Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz never fails to impress. His protagonist, Blackbird “Bird” Mavrias, is introspective and cynical, allowing the author to mine comic pathos and pithy insight from the scenes Bird shares with his boisterous wife Mimi as they holiday in Prague.

What’s different this time around—and where readers will find themselves challenged the most—are the setting and the despairing autobiographical tone. To the former, Indians on Vacation does exactly what its title promises: it takes Thomas King’s familiar brand of Indigenist comedy and transposes it into literal foreign territory. To the latter, we also get a first-person narrator who seems to mirror the author more closely than any since Medicine River’s over thirty years ago. Taken altogether, these aspects of Indians on Vacation invite a series of bleak parallels between, on the comic end, the futility of tourism and, on the tragic end, the perceived futility of activism. Blackbird Mavrias, like King, is a septuagenarian retiree of Greek and Cherokee descent who is bitterly at odds with the world around him. Suicidal and obstinate, Bird punctuates the narrative with flashbacks to his days as a career journalist. Having covered everything from the righteous theatrics of Red Power to the muted optimism of the Reconciliation era, Bird now contends that neither his writings nor the activists’ work meant anything. Juxtaposed against scenes of civil unrest in Prague and of Syrian refugees stranded in Budapest in the present day, Bird’s reminiscences paint a dark picture of a world that refuses to learn from its own history. The irony that unifies tourism and activism in Bird’s (if not King’s) estimation is that folks seek them out not in the interest of creating positive change, but in the interest of having stories to share and compare with others. The point is to be able to say that you were there, and not much else.

Still, what little hope there is for Mimi and Bird resides in the power of stories. In this respect, Indians on Vacation is Thomas King’s most sustained and incisive meditation on storytelling since his oft-cited Massey Lecture series, The Truth about Stories. Where King has always been playful on the subject, now he is pragmatic and jaded. For an elderly couple who have lived through as much as Mimi and Bird, stories will “fix” nothing. Yet, as Mimi seems to appreciate more readily than Bird, the stories we tell have a funny way of coming to life before our very eyes. Knowing Bird could not handle a flesh-and-blood puppy, she buys him a stuffed dog named Muffy who, sure enough, becomes his security blanket. She likens Bird’s various neuroses to an entourage of “demons” and gives all of them names: Kitty the catastrophizer, Didi the depressor, Chip the “you-know-what on your shoulder” (47). Strangest of all, she intuits that Oz, the lone friend that Bird manages to make while in Prague, may in fact be imaginary—just another one of his demons made manifest.

Mimi understands better than Bird that stories are made to be shared, for therein lies their power. When the couple tries to wander off on separate adventures, their individual excursions lose any sense of significance. By contrast, for as much as the two spend their vacation bickering and trying not to look like stereotypical tourists, the moments of mundane, albeit shared disharmony are the ones that bring the embattled couple together in the most meaningful ways. Bird quips early on that “[t]he first expectation of a good travel story is that something went wrong. No one wants to hear about the perfectly uneventful time you spent in Istanbul” (59). Substitute “marriage” or “protest” for “travel,” and you’ll have cut straight to the heart of what makes Thomas King’s late comedy tick.

This review “One Dark Story, That One” originally appeared in Canadian Literature 250 (2022): 185-187.

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