Erdrich, Louise. The Birchbark House. New York: Hyperion Books for Children, 1999. Print.
The Birchbark House follows the life of an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas for a year on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. During the gathering dance that marks the beginning of the winter settlement, a dying fur-trader appears, infecting much of the village with smallpox, including most of Omakayas’ family. Though she did not fall ill from smallpox, Omakayas is weakened from the grief over the death of her baby brother Neewo. In an attempt to snap her out of it, a friend of the family, Old Tallow, takes her aside and reveals that she rescued Omakayas as a baby when she was the sole survivor of a smallpox outbreak on Spirit Island. This is why Omakayas didn’t catch smallpox while caring for her adopted family. Omakayas finds some peace in the realization of her budding gift for healing and the truth of her past.
An Ojibwa village on an island in Lake Superior in 1847
Point of View:
3rd person (Omakayas)
Identity, grief, community, storytelling, coming of age
Louise Erdrich crafts an engaging story for readers while offering a look into Ojibwa traditions. There are illustrations by the author throughout the novel to help us visualize how she imagined the characters. Erdrich masterfully includes other Ojibwa stories to develop characters or tie the plot together. The use of Ojibwa vocabulary in context, often with recasts in English, gives the reader an exposure to and repetition of the language. Well-written and researched, The Birchbark House was honored as a National Book Award Finalist in 1999.
This book is an uplifting representation from the point of view of a minority group not often celebrated in American historical fiction from this period. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and wrote The Birchbark House to honor and retrace her own family history. Through research, she found that she had ancestors who lived on Madeline Island during the same time period that this book was set. She chose an authentic Ojibwa name for the protagonist from a real Turtle Mountain Census to further honor the people of that time. Erdrich also humbly consulted with the historical society, teachers and tribal elders to represent the Ojibwa culture and language as best she could.
This book is appropriate for a middle school, high school or even adult audience. Although the main character is a 7 year-old girl, the reading level might be a little difficult for a younger or beginning reader, especially with the integration of Ojibwa vocabulary. Young readers may not understand how to consult a glossary and could get stuck on foreign pronunciations. Because of the extensive cultural content, older readers may enjoy the view into the language, culture and history of a people through fiction, instead of a traditional non-fiction representation.
This novel fed some of my curiosity and gave me a deeper appreciation for one of the Native cultures present in my state. My prior knowledge of the Ojibwa had been very casual, so I was pleased to get what seemed to be a deeper look. I was also pleased to notice that pieces this book corroborated with other pieces I’ve encountered over the years (like a historical fiction book about a smallpox epidemic in Quebec or a video piece about Ojibwa deer hunting). I especially enjoyed the inclusion of the Ojibwa vocabulary since I am a bit of a language buff. It was helpful to have the words in context and repeated. By the end I actually felt like I retained some of the words! American culture often ignores or misunderstands Native culture since they are often literally marginalized on reservations. This book does a great job of adding a human face to a beautiful culture that more people should know about.