Tuesday, March 24, 2009

The Porcupine Year

Erdrich, Louise. 2008. The Porcupine Year. New York: Harper Collins.
ISBN: 978 0 06 0297879

The Porcupine Year, sequel to The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence, continues the adventures of an Anishinabe, or Ojibwe girl, Omakayas (Little Frog). In The Porcupine Year, so named for the porcupine “medicine animal” that befriends Omakayas’ brother, Omakayas is now twelve years old and is traveling with her family in 1852. The U.S. government is moving the native people ever westward, and Omakayas’ family hopes to join their relatives somewhere northwest of their homeland in current-day Minnesota.

In third person narration, The Porcupine Year recounts a year in the lives of the Anishinabe family. True to the Native American view of life as a circle, the book begins in spring and ends full-circle in the following spring. During that time, Omakaya’s annoying younger brother, Pinch, matures into a resourceful boy named Quill, Omakayas herself, earns a new name, Leading Thunderbird Woman, and the family endures hardship and adventure on the trail west. Native American culture is woven seamlessly into the story, and is experienced through context, rather than explanation. When Omakayas and Pinch narrowly survive a trip through dangerous rapids, the reader completely understands the symbolism behind Omakayas’ decision to leave her precious red beads on a rock by the river as a gesture of thankfulness. Native words are sprinkled liberally throughout the story, but few will send readers to the included glossary,

“’We should continue north, giiwedin,’ said Old Tallow. ‘Few chimookomanag have made their homes in the great woods and lakes. We don’t want them to kick us out again!’

‘I still think that my brother might come through this way,’ said Deydey. ‘This is our old stomping ground. We hunted here long ago, But now…’

‘Game is getting scarce.’

‘There is always good fishing on this lake. But I think we are camped close to the big path of our enemies, the Bwaanag. If their warriors come across us on their way back to their homes, after a raid – mad that they got nothing, howah! – we’d be in big trouble.’”

Native culture is also evident in the respect that Omakayas and the other children have for their elders. The Porcupine Year, is not, however, a novel that merely glorifies the Indian way of life and excoriates the Whites. Rather, Porcupine Year is an honest novel that treats each person individually. Although the whites are understandably blamed for the Anishinabe’s forced migration, the family readily takes in two white children that have been left homeless orphans after a fire. Omakayas’ father is half-white himself. Later, it is a relative from their own tribe that steals from Little Frog’s family, and members of the fierce Bwaanag tribe that kidnap members of the family. As in all cultures, there are good and evil people, and Erdrich does not shy from presenting both types.

Overall, however, The Porcupine Year is not a Native American story, it is the story of a girl…

a girl with a darling baby brother, a girl in a budding romance with a local boy, a girl seeking the approval of her father, a girl with a stern but loving mother, a pesky younger brother, a doting grandmother and a mean-spirited cousin. In short, a girl like any other girl - a girl that readers will understand.

The Porcupine Year is not as deep and soul-searching as the multiple award-winning, Birchbark House, but its faster pace and shorter length (193 pages) makes it more accessible to younger or less-avid readers. The Porcupine Year can easily be read on its own, without its prequels. Some Native American legends are included as stories within the story; a glossary of Ojibwe words and author’s notes conclude the book. Pencil illustrations are by the author. Highly recommended for fans of adventure, historical fiction, coming-of-age, and Native American books. Grades 5 and up.

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