The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House

November has been designated National Native American Heritage Month.  Even if it weren’t, I would still sing the praises of this wonderful book and its sequels.  The Birchbark House introduces the reader to Omakayas (“Little Frog”), a young Ojibwa girl living on what is now known as Madeline Island, Wisconsin, on Lake Superior in the 1840’s.  Omakayas is a strong, sympathetic character; readers will relate to her feelings about her family, her chores, her friends, and will be drawn into her adventures, including an unexpected encounter with a family of bears, and a rescue of a baby crow who becomes her pet.  Through a cycle of seasons, the family lives in harmony with nature with all its beauty and hardship: hunting, fishing, and gathering food; making meals, tools, clothing, toys, learning about life and death.  As autumn winds grow sharper, they move from their summer birchbark house to their snug log cabin built by Omakayas’ Deydey (Daddy) on the edge of the town of La Pointe, that the Ojibwa share with an ever-growing population of chimookomanug (white and non-Indians).  Living so close with the chimookoman settlers, the Ojibwa are unprepared for the diseases they carry. Through the year, including the trials of winter and sickness, Omakayas begins the discovery of her unique past, as well as her talents and nature as a healer.

The Birchbark House and sequels The Game of Silence (2005) and The Porcupine Year (2008) feature Omakayas’ adventures from age 7 to 12.  The fourth,  Chickadee (2012), focuses on the next generation, particularly Omakayas’ sons, Chickadee and  Makoons.  I hope this latest book is not the last!

Unlike most 19th century historic fiction featuring Indian characters, the stories of are told from the Indian point of view, based on the author’s own Ojibwa family history.  Erdrich masterfully weaves tribal culture and language, as well as actual events in history into her story, just as Omakayas, her family and others in her tribe weave games, music, spirituality and rituals into their daily work.  A helpful glossary and pronunciation guide is included in back of the book.

The setting and time frame parallel those in some of  Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” series books; the illustrations by the author are reminiscent of those by Garth Williams for the Wilder series, but are charming and beautiful in their own right.  A fine audio book version of The Birchbark House is available on disc, and on a download through the Wisconsin Digital Library powered by Overdrive.

 The Birchbark House is recommended for ages 9 and up.  The sequels are recommended for ages 10 and up.

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