Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thanksgiving Book: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Happy Thanksgiving!

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….


David Cranmer said...

She may be twelve but she writes better reviews than someone twice her age. The Birchbark House is added to my list of books to be on the lookout for. Thank you.

Alyson | New England Living said...

Thanks for recommending this book. You rarely see a book from the other perspective. I am decended from both the Mayflower pilgrams and the Native Americans that shared that Thanksgiving meal. I'd love to read a book like this and to have my children read it too. Is this available at most bookstores?

Hana Njau-Okolo said...

Thanks for this wonderful book recommendation. I'm getting it for my son. I loved your daughter's review. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Tracy Golightly-Garcia said...


Please tell your daughter she did a great review! I will be buying this book for my daughter--I know it will be a good book for her.

Happy Thanksgiving to you and to your family!

Tracy :)

Cid said...

Wonderful review both of you. I have always enjoyed Louise Erdich and have reread The Blue Jay's Dance many times since my children were born. I will be on the look out for this one for my 11 year old.

A Cuban In London said...

I loved the review but there were two moments where I just had to stop and giggle internally.

'The Colonists repaid the Natives with smallpox.'

To me irony, when well placed, is priceless. Thanks for that little gem.

You daughter's use of the word 'whimsical' was amazing. I can see dad and mum's literary influence there already.

Loved this post. We don't get to hear 'the other side' very often, so it is a much welcomed review.

Greetings from London.

tina said...

Great review from your daughter. A chip off the ole block. You all have a great Thanksgiving.

Anonymous said...

Hello Sarah,
Your daughter writes that "the book was easily read, as I am twelve, and I read more difficult, complex books..." and I can't help compare my son with her. He is twelve too but except reading some books he found intriguing he has prefered "inventing" various games to reading. He started to attend a library some time ago and I hope that reading will speak to him more urgently in the future... :-)

Bee said...

My 11 year old and I have been reading Farmer Boy -- the childhood story of Almanzo Wilder. I think that we should read this one next! VERY persuasive recommendation from you -- and your equally talented daughter.

☆sapphire said...

Hello Sarah

Thanks for this lovely review! Your daughter's is lovely too!
I enjoyed reading your previous review on "The Little House" very much. I'm going to read the both books. Happy Thanksgiving to you!

Rosaria Williams said...

Good selection. Thank you, and thank your daughter for such flawless taste.

troutbirder said...

Kudos to you daughter for a very nice review. When I moved to the Middle School for a change of pace, my English teacher copartner and I combined that subject and American History into a Humanities type course for 8th graders. This book was exactly the kind we looked for to combine with the history themes. I thought then and still do that adolescent fiction was becoming much better than much of our "adult" fiction.

SG said...

A very nice review. I am pleasantly surprised at your daughter's comprehensive review. Thank you for sharing with us.
And, wish you and family a very happy thanksgiving!

Barrie said...

Great review by your daughter! One of my sisters is a HUGE Laura Ingall's fan. I must get her this book to even the scales. And she just happens to have a birthday coming up...

Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Thanks so much for another wonderful suggestion! And all the best of wishes for a most Happy Thanksgiving!!

Sarah Laurence said...

David, my daughter was very pleased to read your comment, thanks!

Alyson, that’s so cool that you have ancestors from both sides of the table. I’ve seen this book in most bookstores and libraries in the children’s section. It is still in print even though it was published about 10 years ago. I’d love to hear what your family thinks of it.

MS, your son is the right age for it. It’s slightly more of a girl’s book, but like the Little House books, it should appeal to all genders and ages. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Tracy, I’m sure you’ll enjoy sharing this book with your daughter too. Happy Thanksgiving to your family!

Cid, as another Erdrich fan, I’m sure you’ll love this book.

Tina, yes, my daughter and I do like talking books. We did have a great Thanksgiving, thanks.

Petra, welcome to my blog all the way from the Czech Republic! Both of my kids are readers, but my daughter is more into reading and writing for fun. It’s sounds like your son has a lively imagination and lots of energy. He might like the Percy Jackson series, which have non-stop action and a page-turner plot.

Bee, your younger daughter would love this book, as would you. It’s the perfect complement to the Wilder series and so much fun to share. I’d love to hear your reaction.

Sapphire, that’s so nice to hear. Enjoy!

Lakeviewer, flawless taste for a flawless book.

Troutbirder, I could see how this book would be perfect for your combined class. I’ve been so impressed by the quality of the writing for tweens and teens too. That’s a big part of the reason why I wrote a novel for young adults myself.

Phoenix, yes, my daughter thinks very carefully about the books she reads. I love when she finds the time to add to my reviews. Happy Thanksgiving to you too!

Barrie, The Birchbark House sounds like a good match for your sister, especially if she has kids too. My daughter was pleased to read your comment. When she grows up, she wants to join you on the bookshelf.

Pamela, Happy Thanksgiving to you, the songwriter and Edward too!

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, sorry, I missed replying to your comment, and it was such a delightful comment. My daughter likes to play with words as much as I enjoy irony. I'm saving a visit to your blog for when I have time to focus on the essay. Busy family time right now.

Sarah Laurence said...


All, I should qualify my response to Alyson about this book’s availability. I have seen The Birchbark House at independent bookstores, but it was not stocked at a large Barnes & Noble. It was published in 2002 and is still in print so available through Amazon if you can’t find it at your local bookstore. The next 2 books in the series are: The Game of Silence (2006) and The Porcupine Year (2008). I haven’t read them yet, but the second one won a prize.

A Cuban In London said...

Thanks for your latest comment on my blog, Sarah, and you're never late, you're always welcome.

The questions you asked are the same question I pose and I agree with you wholeheartedley when you refer to publishers not taking chances very often. But in the current climate who wants to take the plunge and what would the financial implications be?

Your daughter's decision to read 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is perfectly understandable and wise. Too much analysis kills the thirst for literature.

Thanks for your feedback.

Greetings from London.

Sarah Laurence said...

ACIL, yes, I totally understand a publisher’s reluctance to take risks in this economic climate. I brought that point up to balance Zadie Smith’s criticism of authors who write to fit a pre-existing niche. I’m very much enjoying the series on your blog.

Rose said...

Your daughter wrote a fantastic review; I agree with David's comment that she writes better than many older writers. This sounds like a wonderful book for middle schoolers. Unfortunately, it probably won't go on my Christmas list, only because one granddaughter is too old and one too young to read this yet.

TBM said...

I love your daughter's book reviews as much as yours!

And I still envy you all your tree house :-)

Hope you and your family enjoyed a lovely Thanksgiving, Sarah.

Donna said...

Wow, this sounds fantastic!
I like how you included your daugher's review too.

Sarah Laurence said...

Rose and Donna, my daughter was very pleased to read your comments. Thank you!

JAPRA, thank you from both of us! It’s a little chilly out in the tree house now.

Sorry to be so late in responding – we had a wonderful Thanksgiving in NYC. Then we went to Boston. Now it's Hanukkah followed by Christmas. I won't catch before New Year so it's time for a blog break.