Good for Nothing


323 pages
ISBN 0-88899-616-0
DDC jC843'.54





Reviewed by Dave Jenkinson

Dave Jenkinson is a professor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Manitoba and the author of the “Portraits” section of Emergency Librarian.


Originally published in French as Journal d’un bon а rien (1999), Le
coeur sur la brise (2000), and Hiver indien (2001), Good for Nothing
brings the trio of volumes together in a single translated work that is
divided into three chronological parts: May 1959, June 1960, and
November 1960. Largely set in a remote forested area of southwestern
Quebec, the book, according to a concluding publisher’s note, is “a
work of fiction, but the situations it describes are based on fact.”
For the 50 families on the La Rapide Indian Reserve, this period marked
a dramatic involuntary turning point as their nomadic
hunting–gathering lifestyle was replaced by a sedentary,
welfare-dependent way of life when commercial logging companies
clear-cut their hunting grounds and the Ministry of Indian and Northern
Affairs built them stationary wooden houses to replace their canvas

The novel’s central character is Nipishish (aka Pierre Lariviиre), a
15-year-old orphaned Metis of Algonquin and Caucasian heritage. Recently
expelled from a residential school where he’d been labelled as “good
for nothing,” Nipishish has returned to his now alcohol-impacted
reserve, where he realizes, “I don’t know who I am or what I want
anymore.” Throughout the story’s three parts, Nipishish engages in a
series of activities that gradually cause him to discover the answers to
his two-part question. After being placed in an off-reserve Caucasian
foster home—an experience that nearly leads him to commit
suicide—Nipishish begins to find his purpose back on the reserve by
helping to lead a blockade to stop the loggers. Nipishish also discovers
that his father did not accidentally drown, as was officially reported,
but may have been murdered because of his attempts to make North
America’s indigenous peoples more politically aware.

A continuing, significant aspect of the book is Nipishish’s love for
Pinamen Petitguay, a romance that finds its greatest expression in the
novel’s closing section, as the two teens winter over on an isolated
trapline, following traditional ways.

Though Good for Nothing may almost be considered historical fiction by
today’s older adolescent readers, the issues of social justice that
Noлl non-judgmentally raises concerning Canada’s First Nations
peoples remain valid. Recommended.


Noël, Michel., “Good for Nothing,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,