Thursday, July 14, 2016

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House begins with a rather grim prologue that describes a baby girl crawling around the bodies of her family and crying while a group of men stand watching her on the shoreline of a small Lake Superior island.  Knowing sickness has claimed the lives of everyone on the island except this little girl, the men get back into their canoes and leave, afraid and sure the baby will soon die of the same sickness as her family.  One of the men decides to tells his wife about the baby, sure that this brave, fearless woman named Old Tallow would rescue the baby.

The baby is rescued and brought to an Anishinabe or Ojibwe family to be raised on another Lake Superior island they call Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker, in a village called LaPointe.  The baby was named Omakayas, or Little Frog because her first step a hop, and she lives with her new family her DeyDey, her Mama Yellow Kettle, Nokomis (grandma), beautiful older sister Angeline, greedy and annoying younger brother Pinch and baby brother Neewo.  Omakayas is unaware of what happened to her as a baby, but knows that Old Tallow had a special affection for her.

Now in the Summer of 1947, Omakayas begins to slowly and in great detail narrate the life of her family and other Ojibwe over a period of four seasons.  There is a lot of work to be done during each season, most of it in preparation for surviving the winter when food is scare and the cold is bitter. There are hides to be scrapes and tanned, new makazins to be made, food to be planted, harvested, dried and stored in the cold earth, fish to be caught and dried, and wood to be chopped and stacked. But even though there is a lot of work, there is a lot of fun to be had, socializing to be done and pleasure in nature, in Nokomis's storytelling and celebrations with other Ojibwe to be had.

Into the hard, but contented life, comes talk of the chimookoman or white people wanted to push further west and the possibility that the Ojibwe will have to be moved.  But before that happens, a sick visitor, a fur trader, arrives at the traditional dance the Ojibwe have in the late fall and dies of smallpox.  In no time, the disease spreads to Ojibwe family in LaPointe, including Omakaysas's family.  Everyone except Omakaysas is affected.  When Old Tallow tells Omakayas the story her survival, it becomes clear that the year that has just passed was a year of growth and maturity for the young girl, one that leads a path to the possibility that she could eventually become a healer among the Ojibwe.

The Birchbark House has to be one of the most beautifully written, lyrical books I've ever read. Louise Erdrich has a way with words that is just mesmerizing, and yet so straightforward and simple. I often felt as if I were there, listening to a story told by Nokomis on a cold winter's night even though I actually read it on a warm June night.

Overall, The Birchbark House is a very descriptive book, thanks to Omakayas and her observations. Through them, the reader is introduced to Ojibwe culture, tradition and language.  It is amazing to read of closely connected to nature Native Americans were, in particular how they lived with, used and totally respected the world around them.  When an animal is killed for food, it's like is never taken for granted.  Erdrich has sprinkled Ojibwe words throughout the novel, and there is a very useful glossary at the end of the book, with pronunciation help.

Omakayas is a wonderfully enchanting protagonist.  She seems to understand so much at such a young age.  But she isn't without spunk and daring.  Not unlike most kids, she envies Angeleine's beauty, can't stand brother Pinch, loves Neewo and likes to pretend he is her baby, complains about chores she doesn't like, is devoted to her rescued crow Andeg, loves a good story, and feels totally at home in the natural world.

The Birchbark House is part of a series consisting of four novels.  In August, a fifth novel, Makoons, will be added to this wonderful series written from an authentic Native American perspective.  I can't wait to read and reread all of the Birchbark House series this summer, and can't recommend them highly enough.

A printable teaching guide that includes discussion questions, activities and projects is available for the first three books in the Birchbark House series HERE

This book is recommended for readers age 8+
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is a short but informative and beautifully illustrated video about the Ojibwe Naming Tradition, an important point brought up in the book as regards Neewo, which only indicates that he is the fourth child of the family and isn't the name will would ultimately be given:

FYI: Erdrich has claimed that the smallpox epidemic she writes about in this novel did indeed happen in 1847, although some readers have expressed skepticism about it.  I did find a creditable reference to it in Holding Our World Together: Ojibwe Women and the Survival of Community by Brenda J. Child, published in 2012 by Penguin.  Child writes that a fur trader named Lyman Warren died of smallpox on Madeline Island, spreading the disease that ultimately killed 18 Ojibwe there.


  1. Thanks for your in-depth review! I love your book recommendations! #diversekidlit

  2. What a great and detailed review. The book looks very informative and interesting. Thanks for sharing. I will share in my social media outlets, especially because I am in Minnesota. This is very meaningful for all of my students here!


Imagination Designs