________________ CM . . . . Volume XI Number 15 . . . .April 1, 2005


Good for Nothing.

Michel Noël. Translated by Shelley Tanaka.
Toronto, ON: Groundwood, 2004.
322 pp., pbk. & cl., $12.95 (pbk.), $19.95 (cl.).
ISBN 0-88899-616-0 (pbk), ISBN 0-88899-478-8 (cl.).

Subject Headings:
Algonquin Indians-Quebec (Province)-Juvenile fiction.
Métis-Quebec (Province)-Juvenile fiction.

Grades 8-11 / Ages 13-16.

Review by Joan Marshall.

* /4



Finally he says, "The ministry has found you a foster family in the city. You have been enrolled in a high school. Your papers are ready. My assistant will drive you to the bus tomorrow morning. Pack your bags and be ready. The bus will not wait for you."

I'm glued to my chair, stunned. The words dance in my head. City. Foster family. Bus.

I try to stay calm.

"It says all that in there?" I ask, pointing to the file.

"Yes, it's all here. In black and white!"

He waves the letter in front of me as positive proof. Then he quickly puts it back in the file and closes the folder with a slap of his speckled hand.

"My boy, you have no secrets from the government. It knows every step you make, okay? Everything is written down here."

He stands up and puts my file away and pushes the drawer closed with the tip of his finger. He locks it and leans his arm on the file cabinet.

The interview is over.

I stand up. I'm shaking. I have so many questions, but I know that there's no point staying in this office any longer. I need to get outside so I can think.

"Tomorrow morning," he says again. "In front of the band office at 10:30 a.m., okay?"

I feel as if I've been stripped naked. I'm more stunned by that file than I am by the news about going to the city. I never suspected anything like that even existed.

Could they know things about me that I don't even know myself?


Good For Nothing is the story of Nipishish, a Metis teenager, from May of 1959 to the spring of 1961. He leaves the residential school and is sent to a white foster family. Unable to cope with the abuse, he returns to the reserve where life is idyllic and he meets his true love again. He steals his files and those of his father from the band office and discovers that his father was probably murdered by the authorities who wanted this activist gone, rather than dead from drowning as the official story goes. He protests the logging that threatens his reserve and becomes a burr under the saddle of the authorities who begin to watch him closely. Nipishish and his wife Pinamen (now pregnant) spend the winter trapping in the wilderness. Their happy time there is interrupted by the RCMP who kidnap Pinamen. Nipishish rescues her as she falls from the RCMP snowmobile through the ice. He also rescues the worst of the RCMP officers, but the others drown. Nipishish is asked to represent his community as they seek justice for the natives of the Lac Rapide reserve.

     Nipishish is a sensitive young man who represents the suffering of all native people who clearly have been victimized both by the Canadian provincial and federal governments, the RCMP and individual white bigots. Nipishish identifies with Anishinabe elders and their beliefs about the sacred nature of the land. He gains courage from the history of his father, the activist, and his natural leadership qualities are recognized by his people. Many of the story's details are no doubt based on true incidents in the horrifying near genocide of Canada's aboriginal people.

     However, Nipishish seems a little too good to be true. It is odd, also that as a 15-year-old he becomes the community's leader when Manie, his powerful, wise native foster mother, would be a more logical choice for the community. His marriage at such a young age will also seem odd to readers. Secondary characters, like the bigoted police officer Macdonald, Tom, the wise old Indian, and Pinamen the beautiful, talented fecund Indian princess symbol, all come perilously close to clichés. Even the setting seems clichéd: the city is dark, crowded and racist while the forested reserve setting is peaceful, lush and clean.

     For today's teenage readers, this book is completely historical fiction. It takes place in a Canada they will not recognize. They will be unable to identify with and indeed may scoff at the myth of the noble savage that is presented here. The theme is overwhelmingly obvious. There is no subtlety or nuance that might pique the reader's interest and challenge present day racist behaviour or beliefs.

     The day-to-day activities of Nipishish's life over a two-year period become tedious and don't move the plot along. This novel would have been better focused on one incident in Nipishish's life. (In its original French, it was published as three novels, not one.) The use of the present tense is not immediate and compelling, but only irritating.

     This is a story that cries out to be told, a story every Canadian needs to think about long and seriously. It's unfortunate that Good for Nothing will not inspire today's English speaking YA readers to do so.

Not Recommended.

Joan Marshall is the teacher-librarian at Fort Richmond Collegiate in Winnipeg, MB.

To comment on this title or this review, send mail to cm@umanitoba.ca.

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