Tuesday, April 8, 2008
Title: The Birchbark House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Country: USA (Ojibwa)
Rating: 4 out of 5
First sentence: The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.
The Birchbark House takes place on an island in Lake Superior in the late 1800's. It follows one year in the life of a young Ojibwa girl, Omakayas. The novel is divided by season, starting with Omakayas' grandmother, Nokomis, building the summer birchbark house on the lakeshore. It then follows Omakayas and her family through the summer (fishing, harvesting the rice), fall (moving to the winter log cabin), winter (battling disease and hunger), and spring (harvesting maple sugar). The reader meets many delightful people along the way, Old Tallow, a strong-spirited, independent older woman who wears a coat woven from a variety of furs; LaPautre, who believes all of his dreams hold hidden meaning and visions; and Fishtail, a quiet, dignified young man.
When writing a story about complex experiences in children's literature, it is easy to oversimplify events, creating a novel that lacks authenticity. The Birchbark House does not succumb to this pitfall. Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, breaks through the stereotypes present in some other books set during this time period (Little House on the Prairie comes to mind) and delivers an eloquent and powerful story about one Ojibwa Native American family. We learn about the cultural and historical experiences of the Ojibwa (such as the devastating effect of smallpox, the relationship the Ojibwa have with animals and nature, and the difficulty of making it through a winter season without starving), but Erdrich emphasizes themes that cross race, ethnicity, and time: dealing with pesky siblings, coping with the death of a loved one, and searching for your own identity and place within your community. It is a book that would delight almost any age (the devastating death halfway through the novel causes me to hesitate recommending it as a read-aloud book for pre-readers).