On tomorrow’s Thanksgiving Americans (Canadians do so earlier) gather their extended families to show gratitude for nature’s bounty. We also thank Native Americans for sharing food with the new settlers, saving them from starvation. The Colonists repaid the Natives with smallpox.
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich tells the American story of survival from the Native perspective. It reads like the missing companion to Laura Ingall's Wilder's Little House books for young readers. Both feature lovely black and white drawings, fascinating descriptions of 19th century family life and harrowing tales with bright touches of humor. Who knew that Louise Erdrich was an artist too?
The protagonist, Omakayas, is not quite eight, but the story of surviving smallpox during a hard winter has broad age appeal. It could be read aloud to a younger child or read independently by a 9-12 year old. Omakayas’s special relationships with a crow and the bear cubs on her island would have made this book a favorite when I was younger. My daughter’s sixth grade class read it over the summer. She loved it and urged me to read it too.
Here's my daughter's review:
I very much did enjoy the Birchbark House. We read it for school, but I was introduced to it by my best friend in about third grade.
The protagonist is very interesting and thinks in a whimsical fashion, thinking very carefully and hopping about the woods, as she is only seven years old but very responsible. Omakayas is her name and throughout this lovely book she communicates with bears, picks berries and lives through the theme of the book which happens to be, in my opinion, seasons. However, there are various other sub-themes like stories, family, and nature.
The book was easily read, as I am twelve, and I read more difficult, complex books, but it was written well. The plot at some times kept you edging off your seat and biting your lip to see what happens next but at other times is very smooth and pleasant, as they collect wood to build their house and build it throughout each season.
As an adult, I appreciated Erdrich’s insight into native culture and the issue of encroachment. It’s rare that I can’t find a flaw in a novel, but The Birchbark House is flawless: beautifully written, lovable characters, emotionally charged and a worthy issue. It was a National Book Award finalist. It should be required reading for all Americans. Share it with your family over the holidays.
From Chapter 12 Maple Sugar Time:
“Omakayas grinned. Her smile was now whole - new teeth had grown in over the winter. She was older. Soon, spring plants would poke up through dead leaves. The curled head of ferns. Buds, roots, fresh new leaves. Fat lake trout would sleepily rise from the bottom, hungry to be caught. They would be able to think of something other than the next bite of food. They would live again, truly live.”Author Louise Erdrich is part of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and has written many novels on the Native American experience. For adults, my two favorites were Tracks and Love Medicine. I also loved her memoir on writing and motherhood, The Blue Jay’s Dance. The Birchbark House is middle grade fiction, intended for children 8-12.
Speaking of talented middle grade authors, I had a lovely time with my neighbor, author Cynthia Lord. Last week we went out for the evening to talk about life and books. Cindy is the author of Newbury Honor winning Rules. Next week I’ll be interviewing another middle grade author Barrie Summy, who hosts the Book Review Club, and reviewing her soon to be released “i so don’t do spooky.” If you’re looking for good gift ideas for young readers….