Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Reading Through History: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich (1999)

As an infant, Omakayas was her island's sole survivor of smallpox. Rescued by Tallow, an eccentric older woman she considers an aunt, Omakayas is raised by an Ojibwa family on a neighboring island, where, at age 7, she is now the younger sister of beautiful Angeline and the older sister of bothersome Pinch and sweet baby Neewo. Birchbark House relates four seasons in the life of Omakayas, as she helps prepare the family's summer birchbark house,  communicates with bear cubs, helps care for her brothers, listens to stories told by family members, and, sadly, comes face to face with the horror of smallpox once again.

Of all the books I've read about American Indians (including Children of the Longhouse, Blood on the River, The Courage of Sarah Noble, The Light in the Forest, and Salt), this one is by far my favorite.  Though there is some focus on the differences between native culture and white culture, this book is less about conflict and more about the day-to-day living of the Ojibwa people during this time period. Omakayas is a delightful protagonist, whose plucky personality and authentic emotions toward her family members really make the reading experience such a treat. Even when the sadness of the winter smallpox outbreak sets in, the reader is able to find hope in Omakayas and her indomitable spirit.

Readers who like learning other languages will also be pleased to see lots of Ojibwa words throughout the text, and in the glossary of the book. Adding these words to the story and contextualizing their meanings immerses the reader more fully in Omakayas's culture and provides insight into how the Ojibwa view nature, the world, and each other.

The Birchbark House will appeal to the same audience that enjoys the first few Little House titles and Bo at Ballard Creek. It would make a wonderful family read-aloud for ages 6 to 10, but can also be enjoyed by older children. Not every young reader will be ready for the devastation of the smallpox outbreak, so parents should probably pre-read the winter section of the book before committing to read the entire thing to their kids. The deaths which occur in that chapter are handled in a tasteful and age appropriate way, and Omakayas does recover from the losses to the point that she can feel hope again, but it is not an easy thing to read about, and very sensitive readers might be quite upset. (I would have been as a child.)

There are four sequels to The Birchbark House: The Game of Silence (2005), The Porcupine Year (2008), Chickadee (2012), and Makoons (2016).

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