Erdrich, Louise. 1999. The Birchbark House. Ill. by Louise Erdrich. New York: Hyperion. ISBN: 0786822414.
Louise Erdrich’s, The Birchbark House, is a tale of love, loss, and growing up, for Omakayas, a 19th century Objibwa, or Anishinabe girl living near Lake Superior. It is also a recounting of the ways of the Anishinabeg at the dawn of Western expansion. The adventures of Omakyas, her family and her people will delight middle school age readers who will identify with Omakayas and her family.
Erdrich’s The Birchbark House is a beautiful weaving of the literary and the historical, following the life of 7-year-old, Omakayas in the year 1847. The details of Omakayas’ Anishinabeg lifestyle never interfere with the story; instead, they provide a rich backdrop providing interest as well as information. Native American cultural markers are numerous, authentic, and integral to this affecting story.
Omakayas lives a life familiar to many children. She has an older sister whom she envies for her beauty and grace, a younger brother whom she despises for his selfishness and greed, and a baby brother whom she adores for his sweetness and innocence. Her mother is firm, yet loving. Her grandmother, or nokomis, is kind and wise. Her father is often away on business, trapping to provide skins for the White traders. She loathes certain of her chores, particularly the scraping of hides to make leather, she looks after her brothers. These connections render Omakayas accessible to 21st century children. It is through this connection that cultural details are channeled.
Respect for elders is shown throughout the book, from a simple line regarding Grandma, “the dappled light of tiny new leaves moved on Grandma’s beautiful, softly lined face,” to Omakayas' behavior around the strong-willed elder, Old Tallow, “She wished the old woman good health, and called her “Auntie” because it was a sign of affection, though Omakayas was not really sure exactly what she felt. After she’d spoken, she stood politely, waiting.” A reverence for one’s elders is consistently apparent.
The Ojibwa people are portrayed realistically in Birchbark House- not always serious, not always good (especially in the case of Omakays’ brother known as Pinch!), and not always mystical and “all-seeing.” Omakayas’ father, Deydey has a wry sense of humor. Although dreams are taken seriously in the Anishinabe culture, he is not above poking fun at his friend’s sillier dreams. “’Last night I dreamed my head got stuck in a kettle,’ (LaPautre) revealed his voice low and troubled. ‘It must have been a very big kettle’ Deydey said, solemnly, for LaPautre had a big round head and a full moon face.” In another scene, Deydey again teases LaPautre for his dream about lice, while Omakayas and her sister, hiding in the brush “clapped hands over their mouths to stifle their glee.” Light hearted moments are interspersed throughout the book, as they are in life.
Another trait common to Native American people is a willingness to welcome strangers. This is exemplified, though disastrously so, when Omakayas’ people welcome a traveler with smallpox to their lodge.
Birchbark House also evokes the theme of the circle or cycle, common to many Native Americans. The chapters are grouped into books, each named for one of the Anishinabe seasons. The family travels from their winter quarters where they ice fish and survive the harsh winter, to the sap harvest when the maple trees thaw, to the rice harvesting grounds, and to birchbark house where they hunt, gather berries, prepare hides, and prepare foods for winter storage. The story spans a year in Omakaya’s life, beginning and ending at the birchbark house that her family builds anew each spring; and though the clan has suffered loss, there is also joy, the return of one lost, and the renewal of the spring season.
Ojibwa, or Anishinabe words are placed throughout the story, both with English translations and with contextual clues. An author’s note explains the Ojibwa language, and a glossary and pronunciation guide follows the story. Some words, such as the greeting, ahneen, are used often enough to remember. Other words and phrases will have the reader flipping frequently to the glossary. Welcome additions to the text are three “stand-alone” stories told by Omakayas’ relatives. The stories illustrate the inventiveness and purposefulness of Native folktales. “Deydey’s Ghost Story” is especially enjoyable, featuring cleverness in the face of fear.
Small pencil drawings by the author dot the story, adding interest, illuminating Omakayas’ encounters with bears, her parents’ makazins, members of her family and more. The drawings are crisp and clean with just enough detail. The faces are varied but distinctly Native in shape and coloring. The depictions of clothing, tools, and living quarters is reflective of the narrative's description.
An interesting facet of The Birchbark House is its varied perspective on Western expansion. Though the story is told via the young Ojibwa girl, it is clear that her family is not completely opposed to the Whites, or chimookoman. Omakayas’ father is part White. He regularly trades with the Whites and takes pride in his prowess at chess, the White man's game. The clan’s Old Tallow has a disdain for the Whites, yet she too has adapted somewhat to the White ways, living as Omakayas’ family, in a cabin during the winter. Mother sews metal thimbles to her daughter’s dress; father buys calico, velvet and beads from the fur traders. They harbor no ill will against the missionaries, and note that they were helpful in caring for Ojibwa with smallpox. At the same time, they note the European Americans' insatiable hunger for land and the eventual conflict that will arise from the incessant push Westward. This multi-faceted view adds to the richness and realism of the book.
The Birchbark House is an exemplary example of a book depicting a Native American culture in a realistic and engaging manner. The historical and narrative qualities are equally first rate and the author’s own artwork adds to Birchbark’s authenticity. Highly recommended.
Erdrich's "attention to historical detail perfectly balances the compelling story."
2004. "The Birchbark House (Book)." Book Links 13, no. 6: 24-24. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 8, 2007).
"Edrich's novel succeeds best in its efforts to present events with historical and cultural accuracy, while providing enough textual apparatus and insight into the inner life of her main character to draw young readers."
Rice, David. 2002. "Birchbark House/Muskrat Will Be Swimming/Rain is Not My Indian Name (Book)." MELUS 27, no. 2: 246. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed July 8, 2007).
Suggest reading Louise Edrich's The Game of Silence (2005), which continues the story of Omakayas in the year 1850.
Share poems from Lee Francis' When the Rain Sings: Poems by Young Native Americans. (1999)
Suggest Four Seasons of Corn: A Winnebago Tradition by Sally M. Hunter. This book is recommended by Native American author Cynthia Leitich Smith and shows the cycle of the corn planting as practiced by a modern 12-year old, Winnebago or Hochunk boy.