Thursday, November 10, 2016

Reading Through History: The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich (2005)

The Game of Silence is the second book in Louise Erdrich's series which began with The Birchbark House. It is now 1850, and Omakayas and her family have received troubling news: the chimookoman - white people - have started driving Indian tribes away from their homes. While the adults decide how to proceed, the children must play the Game of Silence, where prizes are rewarded to the child who can remain quiet the longest. Once it is decided that a member of the tribe will be sent out to gather more information, life resumes its normal rhythm for Omakayas, though always with the threat of losing her way of life hanging over her head. As she begins to discern how she will contribute to her tribe in adulthood, she also gains a deeper appreciation for the place where her family has always lived and what it will mean for them to lose it.

This sequel is every bit as good as the first book of the series. The writing is impeccable, and the storytelling is appropriate for a middle grade audience - honest about the difficulties the Ojibwe face, but not brutally unhappy. It does not discount the sadness Omakayas faces when she realizes her home may be taken from her, but it also shines the light on little glimmers of hope here and there that keep the reader from despairing of Omakayas's fate altogether.

What stood out the most to me, however, is the only potential flaw in the entire story: the portrayal of Catholic priest, Father Baraga.  The scene that gave me pause is from pages 188 and 189 in the hardcover edition: 

"Mikwam, the only way you can gain everlasting life is through my church," said Father Baraga. 

His eyes were kind, almost pleading, as though he were watching them suffer. He pitied them, she thought with surprise, and it almost made her laugh because they pitied him right back. 

"Everlasting life," he said again, softly. 

"Will my father, my mother, my grandfathers, and my grandmothers be there in this everlasting life?" asked Deydey. 

"Were they baptized?" asked Father Baraga.

"No," said Deydey.

"They they will not," the priest answered in a sad voice. 

"Then of course I can't go," said Deydey. "I want to see them."

Father Baraga only scratched his head, underneath his tiny useless cap, and sighed. There was nothing he could do about this family, nothing. 

This scene bothered me because Father Baraga's words do not align with church teaching. The church teaches - and, as I confirmed with a staff apologist at Catholic Answers, has always taught - that unbaptized people can be saved. I have a hard time believing that Father Baraga (who was a real person, and, who, I also learned from my Catholic Answers contact, has been declared Venerable) would not be familiar with this teaching, or would purposely misrepresent it to Omakayas and her family.  It also didn't sit right with me that Father Baraga is willing to state with certainty that any individual does not have everlasting life, as the church teaches that only God can judge the fate of someone's soul. Since Father Baraga is a historical figure, I can't imagine that Erdrich did not research him heavily before including him in her book, but based on what I know of the teachings of the church and Father Baraga himself, something feels off. It almost seems that this priest is being portrayed in an unfairly negative light (along with his "tiny useless cap") for the sake of giving Omakayas more credibility. I can understand the Ojibwe not wanting to adopt Christianity, but I can't understand a priest making the idea less palatable with false information.

This is such a small piece of the book that I don't want to suggest that it spoils the book in any way. As a Catholic parent, it just makes me want to be sure that I read this part of the book with my children to help them accurately understand what the Church teaches so they don't walk away from this book with an unfair misconception of their own faith. I still recommend the book, especially for the upper elementary range, but I will be curious to see how Father Baraga's role evolves (or doesn't) in future books of the series. 

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