It is important to begin this review with the fact I’m Caucasian, first generation Italian, third generation Irish, born in Canada, live a life which many would call privileged, but would do so without understanding of family background, struggle, trauma. I do understand being a victim. But I do not have an understanding of residential school trauma. Having said all that, I do very much find compassion for, and empathy and solidarity with, my First Nations people. I hear your struggle. I champion your cause. Let us leave no one in the darkness of despair, victimization, and oppression. Let us move into the light, into healing, into a positive state.
Given that preface then, allow me to comment on the literary merit, not the humanitarian merit, of Michelle Good’s novel. It is an important novel, if for no other reason than the fact it is one more very strong, intimate and authoritative indictment of residential schools, of religious zeal, and human cruelty.
As a literary work, however, I found the prose simplistic and without the impact great writing can cement to a great story. I also found the characterization a bit Archie-comics, a bit wooden, and because of this I very much felt, from a purely writers’ craft perspective, that Good could have done better if she had editors who cared as much about good writing as they did about the importance of her story.
Good chooses to tell the story of five different people who all came out of the same horrific residential school, how their lives intersected after they emerged, and how their lives either dissipated and shattered, or found cohesion and resolution. She does manage the different timelines and perspectives very well. There is no confusion, and so the story moves along quite well.
But is it a brilliantly told story? When you compare this story to Boyden’s Wenjack or The Orenda, for which he was unjustly vilified in my view, there is no comparison. Boyden tears emotion out of your throat, leaves you breathless and hurting, transported into the pain and horror of the characters he lifts off the page. Good, on the other hand, tells stories ABOUT people. She doesn’t create people who tell us their story. There is a profound difference.
Let it not be thought, however, that Good’s novel isn’t worthy of your time. It is. Read it. It’s important.