Children's Literacy Round-Up: April 27
Poetry Friday: Edward Lear

The Birchbark House: Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House (originally published in 1999) is the story of a year in the life of a seven-year-old girl and her Ojibwa family, living on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. The book was written by Louise Erdrich, herself a member of the Turtle Band of Ojibwa (former name: Anishinabe). The Birchbark House takes place during the same time frame as Little House on the Prairie, and the two books share certain similarities. However, The Birchbark House illustrates that time frame from the perspective of the Native Americans, who fear being pushed ever Westward by white people. It includes many Ojibwa words and customs, and Ms. Erdrich does a wonderful job of conveying the sense of harmony that the Ojibwa share with their surroundings.

The Birchbark House is told from the point of view of young Omakayas (Little Frog), so named because her first step was a hop. She lives with her parents (when her father isn't away working as a fur trader), her grandmother, her older sister Angeline, and her two younger brothers, Pinch and Neewo. As the book begins, the family is moving to their summer fishing camp in a birchbark house by the lake. The reader quickly comes to know Omakayas. She is bright and quick. She admires and envies her beautiful older sister, and adores her baby brother Neewo. Pinch, on the other hand, is the bane of her existence, and we see that sibling rivalries easily transcend cultural backgrounds. The characters of Omakayas' entire family are realistically drawn.

At first, this book seems like a pleasant, easy read, with descriptions of berrying and scaring away crows from the corn, and harvesting rice. Soon, however, Erdrich begins to deal with larger issues, related to the encroachment of the white people, the dreaded small-pox, and the possibility of starvation during the harsh winter. I was stunned by how bleak things became, relative to the early joyfulness. But in the end, the book offers hope.

I listened to this book on MP3, and thought that the narration was excellent. The Native American voice of the grandmother, in particular, was quite compelling. And I'll remember the voice of the family's pet crow for quite some time, squawking out "Gego, Pinch".

I think that this would be a perfect companion book for anyone reading the Little House books, showing another side to the story. The Ojibwa words should also lend themselves well to read-aloud for younger kids. The book is targeted to middle grade readers, probably up to about 7th grade. However, because there are sad parts to the book, I would strongly recommend that parents read the book themselves, too. Without being heavy handed about it, The Birchbark House opens the door to discussions about how Native Americans were treated during the 1800s, what constitutes a family, survival, and respect for elders. And it's also fun, too! Really, it's a wonderful book, and I'm glad that I finally got around to listening to it. I highly recommend it.

And, if you happen to be in Minneapolis, Louise Erdrich owns a bookstore there called Birchbark Books. I hope to check it out one day myself.

© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.