Five Little Indians: A Tale of Resilience, by Zoe Longtin

Five Little Indians: A Tale of Resilience, by Zoe Longtin

About Zoe Longtin: I am in my second year of the Illustration program. After I graduate, I would like to work as a character designer or a visual development artist. I have always loved literature so Mary Gossage’s Book Club English course piqued my interest. I enjoyed my reading of Five Little Indians, a hard hitting novel about the Native American experience that deserves careful attention. In this essay I discuss the literary elements that support the novel’s theme of resilience, hope and healing.


     Resilience is crucial for many Indigenous people, as overcoming the trauma caused by residential schools requires incredible strength. In Michelle Good’s work Five Little Indians, a novel that follows the journey of five survivors after they are released from residential school, the first chapter, “Prologue,” establishes the theme of resilience through the use of motifs, symbols, and imagery. The symbol of the circle, the symbol of the birch tree, and the contrast between warm and cold can all be found in the first three pages of the novel, emphasizing Good’s message of hope and healing.

     Circles are introduced as a symbol of resilience in the first chapter. In many Indigenous cultures, circles represent the cycle of life, death, and rebirth. In the novel, they symbolize being able to live fully after trauma. No character can ever completely heal, but their lives outside residential schools are a second chance for them to thrive and attempt to overcome their past. The first chapter focuses on Clara, a character who is present in the story from the beginning to the end. Her strength is shown in the structure of the novel. Chronologically, the chapter “Prologue” is set after the ending of the story, which creates a circular trajectory, one that blurs the edge between the beginning and the end. In a way, the end is just the beginning. Additionally, the first chapter introduces many circular elements. The people are “gathered in a circle around the open grave” (Good 3), the helpers are playing hand drums that are circular in shape, and they then sit in a circle in the sweat lodge. The circle imagery during the ceremony suggests a deep inner peace, a wholeness that survivors are stripped of but longing for. Clara says to her friend Lily’s casket, “We finally got to go home. You and me both” (3), showing how the ceremony offers her closure on a traumatizing event that has haunted her for years. The ceremony establishes the end of a constant loop of guilt and terror for Clara, the end of years of waiting for her friend’s remains to be found after she tragically died at the hands of the Mission Residential School. While Clara still has other traumas to overcome, this chapter is a sign of rebirth. It presents the beginning of another journey of resilience. 

     Good uses plant motifs to communicate deeper themes. In Five Little Indians, the birch tree conveys strength, adaptability and resilience, as it is a type of tree that can grow in the harshest of conditions, growing back quickly in areas damaged by forest fires, for instance. Clara is a character who, like a birch tree, shows tremendous resilience. Her strong connection to these trees is introduced on the very first page, as she is said to be walking “oblivious to time, only turning back when the sun [is] high and the birch trees [shimmer] all around her” (1). We later learn that they remind her of a simpler time, when she was a child walking through the silver birch tree grove near her house. The frequent presence of these trees symbolizes how she is slowly going back to a liveliness and purity that she only knew during her childhood. After her first time in the sweat lodge, for instance, it is said that, “there are no words to describe how one woman walked into that lodge and another walked out. All Clara knew was that it took her back. Back to the birch grove and the angel songs” (199), making the birch a symbol of rebirth. Furthermore, when Clara is held by the police for a night, she sees a birch tree outside of her cell. The tree “[stands] alone in a small square of dirt,” but it stays beautiful, its leaves capturing the light and “shining silvery and soft” (117). The contrast between the terrible soil and the majestic tree implies that it is possible to thrive and shine where one would least expect it. Introducing this symbol from the beginning is powerful as it echoes throughout the novel, showing the persistence of the tree. 

     Five Little Indians uses contrasting images of warm and cold to show the characters’ resilience. The first chapter, “Prologue,” presents many warm elements, creating a clear distinction between the setting of that scene and those of the chapters to come. In the beginning, when Kenny, another survivor, manages to escape the school, the water is cold, and he is “chilled almost numb from his long day on the water” (9). Later, Lucy too leaves the school in cold weather, on a day when “the mist [sits] low on Arrowhead Bay” (33). When one is cold, moving becomes hard and one instinctively recoils into themselves. This particular choice of setting shows how upon leaving the Mission Residential School, the children are wholly unprepared to face the frigid real world and actively move through life. Howie’s character further demonstrates the symbolic contrast between warm and cold as “even after all the years of cold prison cells, his body [remembers] the healing heat of his time in the Southwest after his mom had run with him across the border” (276). The warmth represents a connection to his younger self, when he was free of trauma. In the first chapter specifically, a feeling of warmth is conveyed to represent Clara’s resilience. The women walk “in the direction of the sun” (3), which is a symbol of life, peace, and healing in Indigenous culture, and they perform a ceremony in Mariah’s sweat lodge, a place that perfectly links the concepts of warmth and healing. Later in the novel, there are many more instances of Mariah’s place being described as warm, even during the winter. Clara stays with Mariah for a few months in her cabin in the middle of the woods as the police are looking for her. At first, Clara resists the woman’s help, uncomfortable with her traditional ways, but as her fondness for Mariah grows, the imagery gets warmer. For example, “Mariah [leaves] Clara there, tea in hand, the wood stove open, its warmth comforting body and soul” (192-193). The tangible warm elements like the tea and the wood stove along with the warmth of Mariah’s motherly character as she cares for her represent the healing process happening in Clara. 

     In conclusion, the first chapter, “Prologue,” shows the hopeful side of the incredibly sad tale that is Five Little Indians. The circle imagery, the reference to birch trees, and the warmth of the setting all work together to strengthen the theme of resilience. While other characters like Maisie and Kenny sadly could not bear the weight of their traumatic past, characters like Clara, Howie, and Lucy are beacons of hope, finding ways to reinvent themselves through their hardships.


Work Cited

Good, Michelle. Five Little Indians. Harper Perennial, First Edition, 2020.

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