Rebecca Ripperton

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“The Birchbark House” Series by Louise Erdrich

by Rebecca Ripperton
November 7, 2019

Both this post and another in the upcoming months will be dedicated to contemporary author Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House series. The Birchbark House books center around a young girl named Omakayas (whose name is an Ojibwe word meaning “little frog”), and her family’s experiences in the 1840s and 1850s living near what is now known as Lake Superior. The first three books follow Omakayas throughout her childhood, while the latter two are set later and written from the perspective of her twin sons, although Omakayas still features prominently.

In these posts, our plan is to write about the series as a whole and to discuss themes that occur across all five books, although we will focus slightly more on the first three books in this post and then on the later books in the second. We will also include discussion questions for the entire series in the second post.

All five books in the series are recommended for readers ages 8-12, and unlike many other children’s book series, there aren’t significant changes in the level of reading difficulty as the series progresses. As a result, the books would be appropriate to read within the span of a year or two, depending on the degree of the reader’s interest. As the beginning of the series is somewhat slow, I would recommend reading at least the first book aloud, but after that, the books are suitable for a child to either read independently or aloud with their family or in a class setting.

An Excerpt from “The Porcupine Year”

“And we will live here,” said Omakayas, “won’t we? For a long time to come?”

Nothing would ever take the place of her original home, but Omakayas also loved this place. She loved this lake with its magical islands, each so different. […] She loved the mist and rocks, the reefs with their hordes of pelicans, the dark pines with the vast nests of eagles in their branches.

“Yes, we will live here,” said Nokomis, “and I’ll make certain that you know everything that I know.”

*     *     *

Erdrich, Louise.  “The Woman Lodge.” The Porcupine Year House (181). New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books. 2008. 181. Print.

About the author

Louise Erdrich is a modern day author whose work tends to focus on indigenous people, as well as the interactions between indigenous and non-indigenous communities. A Poetry Foundation biography for Erdrich notes that “As the daughter of a Chippewa Indian mother and a German-American father, Erdrich explores Native-American themes in her works, with major characters representing both sides of her heritage.” Although she also writes about the present day, a good portion of her work – like The Birchbark House series – is set during the era of westward expansion.

In all of her books, but in this series in particular, Louise Erdrich melds the Anishinaabe, or Ojibwe, language with the English language in her writing. Characters’ speech and thoughts are largely written in English, with many Ojibwe words and phrases woven in. Often the meaning of those words and phrases is evident from their context, but each book is accompanied by a thorough index of all the phrases and individual words used throughout the text. Despite the fact that I frequently found myself flipping to the back of the book to look up new words, I loved this blending of languages and the dimension it added to the narrative.

Reading this series was the first time that I had read any of Louise Erdrich’s children’s literature, and I was curious to see how it compared to the novels she has written for older readers. I found that I prefer the novels she has written for adults, but I greatly enjoyed this series, too. In all her works, Louise Erdrich is a vibrant storyteller, and an absolutely exquisite writer. Her writing is humorous, poignant, and just brimming full of life.  I really cannot recommend her adult fiction highly enough! The first book of hers I ever read was Love Medicine, and after that I was hooked. The Justice trilogy books (The Plague of Doves, The Roundhouse, and LaRose) would also be wonderful books for older readers to begin with.

About Omakayas and her family

Omakayas’ relationships with her family are one of the absolute best parts of these books.

Sadly, Omakayas’ own parents died of smallpox when she was still a baby, so a woman named Yellow Kettle, and a man whom Omakayas calls Deydey (meaning father) raise her as their own child. Yellow Kettle and Deydey treat Omakayas no differently than their other children, and for the first years of her life, Omakayas is unaware that they are not her birth parents and that her sister and two brothers are not her siblings by birth.

Other members of the family include Omakayas’ elegant older sister, Angeline, whom Omakayas longs to please, and a younger brother called Little Pinch who is the bane of her existence. In the first book, Omakayas also has a brand new baby brother who is still too small to be given a proper name, but whom she calls Chickadee. Two other vital members of her family are her grandmother, Nokomis, who lives with them, and Old Tallow, an older woman who lives in a home of her own and who is known in the village as a fierce hunter. Many of the village children are afraid of her, but she seems to be strangely fond of Omakayas. Later we learn that this is due to the fact that she was the brave person who rescued Omakayas from the island where her entire village had died of smallpox. Old Tallow acts as a second grandmother to Omakayas, and as a protector to her entire family.

Throughout all the books of this series, I particularly appreciated how Omakayas’ relationships with her siblings were presented. Her older sister is sometimes dismissive of her, sometimes generous, and Omakayas is always uncertain of how her sister will treat her, although she longs to be like her. Her little brother on the other hand is selfish, rude, and in Omakayas’ opinion, useless. In the early chapters of the first book, it’s hard to imagine Little Pinch and Omakayas ever getting along. But the relationships between Omakayas and both her two siblings develop tremendously over the series, which is moving to witness. Through shared experiences and suffering, the three are brought closer together and deep shifts occur in their relationships, as well as within their own characters.

An Excerpt from “The Porcupine Year”

Not long and the family was eating, dunking bannock in venison soup, talking, rehashing all that had happened to Omakayas and Quill. The porcupine was back on Quill’s head, in its accustomed spot. It was beginning to smell a little funny, and Mama said that Quill would have to sleep outside with it or wash.

“I will choose to live with my medicine,” said Quill. “Even though my family shuns me!”

Everyone agreed that Quill was the perfect name for him from then on.

*     *     *

Erdrich, Louise. “The Memegwesi.” The Porcupine Year (29-30). New York, NY: HarperCollins Children’s Books. 2008. 29-30. Print.

Communal living and intergenerational relationships

As much as anything else, these books are about family, and about community as an extension of the family.

Omakayas’ immediate family lives in a birchbark house, but her extended family members all live close by, as does Old Tallow. Intergenerational relationships are emphasized throughout the series, with Nokomis serving as a vital force within her family and the broader community. The same may also be said of Old Tallow. The villagers all live, travel, and work together in groups in order to serve the community as a whole, and they frequently share resources and labor with one another.

In reading this series, I was struck by the expansive nature of many of these relationships. Although Omakayas’ own parents died when she was very young, her adopted parents treat her precisely as they do their own children. The family also takes in other children on more than one occasion, and treats them with that same care and compassion. Omakayas’ sister, Angeline, is not able to give birth to children of her own after surviving smallpox, but she nevertheless serves as a mother within the community. Even Omakayas takes her cousin’s daughter as her own, when it becomes clear in the later books that Two Strike is not meant to be a mother. In this world, parent is a verb, not a noun, and the role of guardian or caretaker is one that many characters gladly step into for strangers and for extended family members alike.

Within this community, children also act as necessary contributors. They are expected to perform daily chores and help their parents with arduous tasks. Omakayas, for instance, helps to scrape animal skins free of flesh, prepare food for each day as well as for the winter, and set traps for rabbits. These tasks are vital, and directly serve both their families and communities; any negligence could have serious consequences.

Living in unity with nature

By necessity, Omakayas and her village live in harmony with nature and in accordance with the seasons. They have different camps and food caches for different times of the year, and their activities are very much determined by their surroundings and the weather. But more than this, she and her family members have deep-seated respect and gratitude for the natural world, all of which they view as endowed with spirit. They certainly hunt, but never to excess, and they use each part of the animal’s body so that nothing is wasted. Without fail, they also express their thanks for all that the animal, and that nature itself, has given them.

Throughout the series, the family also goes through a sequence of unlikely pets, each of which stays with them for a time and then returns to its own kind. Omakayas has a beloved crow, Andeg, who speaks and even helps the entire family, Little Pinch befriends a porcupine who gives him a new name, and years later, Omakayas’ sons even adopt a buffalo calf for a brief period of time.

Even though much of their time is dedicated to ensuring their survival, and animals are a means to that end, the children still treat animals as their friends and playmates whenever possible.

An Excerpt from “The Birchbark House”

The bear cub took one berry, then jumped away in seeming fright at its own bold act. But the taste of the berry seemed to banish fear. The two now tumbled at her, growling, mock-ferocious. Their long pink tongues touched up every berry from her hands, eagerly flicking them from her fingers as fast as she could pick. They seemed to like the game. It could have gone on for hours, that is, until she stood upright. Then they tumbled backward in alarm. Their chubby bottoms rolled over them like playing balls, and she laughed out loud. She realized they had thought Omakayas was their own size. They were astonished the same way Omakayas had been the first time she saw the trader unfold a seeing glass, something he called a telescope, a long, shiny tube that grew in his hands.

*     *     *

Erdrich, Louise. (1999). Old Tallow. The Birchbark House (27-28). New York, NY: Hyperion Books for Children.

A tradition of healing

It becomes clear to her family that Omakayas, even at her young age, has unusual gifts, both of healing and of prescience. She is able to understand the language of plants and many animals. And from a mix of her intuition and careful observation of Nokomis, she is instinctively able to treat and heal injuries without direction from others, which she does on more than one occasion. Omakayas is also able to save her own father’s life through a vision she has of him while he is traveling, and she works in tandem with her grandmother, who is also a healer, to save all of her other family members when another smallpox outbreak reaches their village.

Once her gifts become evident, Nokomis takes her granddaughter under her wing and slowly begins to teach her all that she knows about healing and about medicine. The special bond between the two is strengthened, and Nokomis helps guide Omakayas well into her adulthood.

A brief disclaimer

To be completely honest, I had a fairly difficult time getting into The Birchbark House, despite having read and loved numerous books by Louise Erdrich in the past. It took me several attempts to get past the first 50 or so pages, and I tried reading it to myself, as well as listening to it as an audiobook.

However, I was very glad that I kept going. While the first two books are good, I felt that the series really becomes outstanding around the third book and continues in that same vein through the final book, Makoons. Perhaps this is due to the age of the characters. As the series progresses, the characters grow older and become more fully developed as they are forced to grapple with more complex and nuanced situations. The first two books also very much set the stage for events that occur in the later books. It’s possible, too, that I just wasn’t as focused as I should have been at the beginning. Whatever the reason, I wanted to share that experience and to advise any readers who might struggle to get into the narrative to keep going!

Share your experience!

What about you all? Have you read The Birchbark House books, or any of Louise Erdrich’s other novels or stories, and if so, what did you think?

Please also let us know what questions you have about these books in the comments below! We will do our best to answer them in the next post.

Purchase Books at Amazon

The Birchbark House (Book 1)
by Louise Erdrich

The ​Game of Silence (Book 2)
by Louise Erdrich

The Porcupine Year (Book 3)
by Louise Erdrich

Chickadee (Book 4)
by Louise Erdrich

Makoons (Book 5)
by Louise Erdrich

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A Bundle of Dog Books

by Rebecca Ripperton
October 14, 2019

For today’s post we wanted to highlight a small subset of stories that we ​have made available through Yesterday’s Classics. There are four titles in all, each is an adventure tale, and each either features a dog for its protagonist or centers around dogs in some other way.

Why read dog adventure stories?

The four stories highlighted in this post all feature courageous dogs (and their equally courageous masters), and are intended for middle-school aged readers and up.

I don’t believe it’s any coincidence that this sort of book is so popular with that particular age demographic. To me, these stories serve as a natural bridge for middle-aged readers between the countless children’s books that feature animals (the Among the People series, the Burgess Bedtime Story-Books, the Beatrix Potter books, etc.), and full-length novels. 

Each book or short story in this quartet will feel familiar to youthful readers, reminding them of earlier stories they read and loved, but each book also contains more mature themes such as the necessity of courage, the fight for survival under dire circumstances, the fight against evil, etc. With the one exception of Adrift on an Ice-Pan, each dog featured in these stories is endowed with his own unique character and lovable quirks, and all are masterfully written.

Readers who own dogs will easily understand the adoration the dogs’ masters feel for them, and readers without dogs will relish the opportunity to read about the exploits of such wonderful creatures!

“The Call of the Wild” by Jack London

Despite n​ot having read it until my early adulthood, The Call of the Wild is an all-time favorite of mine.

Its hero is Buck, who leads the luxurious life of a lap dog for the first years of his life, although I suspect his size was prohibitive to any actual lap sitting, as he is half St. Bernard and half Scottish Shepherd (a.k.a. Collie). Born and raised in sunny California, he is eventually stolen and sold for use as a sled dog. In Alaska, Buck must learn to survive the forces of the arctic, including defending himself against other dogs and even against many men. Throughout these trials, Buck begins to hear the “call of the wild” and something primordial starts to awaken inside of him.

Both on his way to the Klondike region and upon arriving, Buck goes through a series of several owners, until he finds his match in the courageous John Thornton. The two are very much equals, and even become indebted to one another when each in turn saves the other’s life. But whether even John Thornton can prevent Buck from heeding the “call of the wild” is another matter entirely.

I still have never read any of Jack London’s other books, but can highly recommend this one! It’s great for middle schoolers, and lends itself well to discussion, too. I read it with four classes of seventh graders, and was delighted to observe how much the students enjoyed it each year. The female students loved it just as much, if not more than, the males!

The Call of the Wild

A magnificent dog, stolen from a comfortable home for use as a husky in the Klondike, develops, through his varied life on the team and among men, a remarkable sense of responsibility and an unbounded capacity for love and hate. Upon the death of his master, his only friend, he responds to the call of the wild and becomes one of a great wolf pack. A powerful story, vivid in background and dramatic in incident.
Ages 12-18

“Lad, A Dog” by Alfred Terhune

When I first read Lad, A Dog I was struck by how similar its opening setting is to that of The Call of the Wild. Although different breeds of dogs and born on opposite sides of the country, Lad leads the life that Buck might have enjoyed, had he not been sold into captivity.

Lad is a beautiful male collie who enjoys a privileged status at The Place, where he lives in the main house alongside his master and beloved mistress. Moreover, Lad has a mate, Lady, whom he adores, but who often behaves carelessly toward him.

Lad, A Dog

Lad, 'an eighty-pound collie, thoroughbred in spirit as well as in blood,' is an unforgettable dog. Devoted to his Master and Mistress, he protects them from intruders and thieves, saves a visiting child from a snake, and makes them proud when he wins tops prize at the dog show. In all instances, Lad shows himself to be the epitome of loyalty, honor, and courage. Readers of all ages enjoy the adventures of Lad, through all its ups and downs.
Ages 10-12

Lad’s most salient characteristics are his loyalty and obedience toward his master and mistress. He understands them perfectly, and is only ever disobedient when he must protect someone who does not know himself to be in danger. But when occasion requires it, he becomes fiercely protective of his home and loved ones.

The book, the longest of all four titles mentioned here, is written in an episodic fashion, and focuses on Lad as a hero of his family. Among the vignettes recounted are stories of Lad defending his home against intruders, saving his mistress’s life, becoming a father, and competing in dog shows – much to his own displeasure.  As a house-dog, the challenges that Lad does encounter are not so much those of the wildness of nature, but of evil within men. I would say it’s a great read for children or families who wholeheartedly adore dogs, and enjoy reading about them. The themes and events of this book aren’t nearly as complex as those of the other three, but it will nevertheless be a lighthearted and enjoyable read for many. Perhaps even a good counterweight to the other three stories! And if your family appreciates this first book about Lad, there are two sequels to enjoy: Lad of Sunnybank and Further Adventures of Lad.

“Adrift on an Ice-Pan” by Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

Of all these stories, Adrift on an Ice Pan is the one that focuses most on man’s experience, rather than on the experience of his animals. In this true account, Sir Wilfred Grenfell remembers the time when he became stranded on an ice-pan with his team of dogs in St. Anthony, Newfoundland on, of all days, Easter Sunday.

Dr. Grenfell had been sent to Newfoundland as a medical missionary from England, and in this story, finds himself required to travel 60 miles over the ice to treat a young child suffering from a serious bone disease. During his journey he becomes separated from his companions, and the ice sheet beneath him and his komatik, or dog sled, begins to break up.

The majority of the story focuses on his struggle to survive, and on his thought processes throughout the endeavor. Unfortunately, Dr. Grenfell is forced to sacrifice 3 of his beloved team of dogs in order to survive the bitter cold of night, but the rest survive the trial with him. Because of this, parents or teachers will probably find it a good idea to read the story in advance of reading it with their children or students! I didn’t find it any more gruesome than certain elements or scenes of The Call of the Wild, but just wanted to warn more sensitive readers (and dog lovers).

Adrift on an Ice-Pan

In Adrift on an Ice-Pan, Wilfred Thomason Grenfell recounts a near death experience and the miraculous rescue that saved his life. The incident takes place in Labrador in 1908 as Dr. Grenfell sets out with his team of sled dogs to treat a medical emergency sixty miles south of his home. Traversing a stretch of frozen ice, Grenfell finds that it is not as solid as he had believed; suddenly stranded, the team floats helplessly on their ice-pan, surrounded by frigid water. Through quick-thinking by Grenfell and heroic efforts by his rescuers, Grenfell does make it off the ice-pan alive. Adrift on an Ice-Pan is a true story of faith, sacrifice, and survival.
Ages 11-14

As one might expect, faith plays a major part in this story. As a missionary, Dr. Grenfell was a man of deep faith and that faith is evident throughout his trials. The conviction he bears throughout his time on the ice-pan is remarkable: he does not seem to feel fear or doubt that good will come, whether that good be his ultimate rescue, or going to meet his Maker. In fact, his refrain throughout the entire journey is “Thy will, not mine, O Lord.”

Again, this book isn’t so much of a “dog” book as the other three, but it is an inspiring tale, nevertheless!

“Stickeen: The Story of a Dog” by John Muir

Like Adrift on an Ice Pan, Stickeen is a true story, this time of John Muir’s experience with a “small and worthless” black dog named Stickeen. Despite his unimpressive physique, however, Stickeen proves himself to have a remarkable character, and he and John Muir soon establish a strong sense of kinship.

The two first meet on an exploration voyage of southeastern Alaska, and in the main event of this short story, sneak off early in the morning to explore a glacier without the rest of their company. Unfortunately, though, they are caught in a blizzard and must somehow find their way back to camp without falling into any crevasses. Under the circumstances, this proves to be a seemingly impossible task, for Muir and Stickeen alike.

As Muir recounts their difficult journey back, he focuses in particular on Stickeen’s character, and on his reluctance to cross an especially treacherous ice bridge in order to make it back to camp. Muir does not want to leave Stickeen, but Stickeen seems to refuse to follow Muir. Ultimately, the perils they face together cause the two to become the best of friends, and very nearly inseparable for the remainder of the trip.

This is another short story set in a remote and snowy land, but in many ways much lighter than Adrift on an Ice Pan, and accordingly, appropriate to read with slightly younger children.

Stickeen: The Story of a Dog

In this exquisite essay, John Muir relates a death-defying experience he shared with a dog named Stickeen on an Alaskan glacier and reflects on the insights it offered him. Of his companion, Muir writes: 'At first the least promising and least known of my dog-friends, he suddenly became the best known of them all. Our storm-battle for life brought him to light, and through him as through a window I have ever since been looking with deeper sympathy into all my fellow mortals.' An absolute must for dog lovers.
Ages 10-14

The Takeaway

​Among these four books, there is something for everyone!

The short story Adrift on an Ice Pan focuses most heavily on a man’s near encounter with death and the faith he demonstrates in his responses. The Call of the Wild, on the other hand, is set in similarly dire circumstances, but written from the perspective of the formidable sled dog, Buck, and is also in novel form. Stickeen, another short story, is again written from the perspective of a man, but focuses heavily on his dog’s character and experiences, too. Lastly, Lad is the most lighthearted and episodic of the four titles and is wonderful for family reading.

Each of these books would be appropriate for a middle-aged reader to tackle independently, but all also make for excellent read-alouds. We especially recommend this type of book because it makes for great transition material between the many children’s books that feature animals and full-length novels!

Share Your Experience!

Do you have a favorite dog book or short story that we didn’t include here? Please let us know in the comments below! 

Purchase Ebooks From Yesterday's Classics 

Adrift on an Ice-Pan
by Wilfred Thomason Grenfell

The Call of the Wild
by Jack London

Lad, A Dog
by Albert Payson Terhune

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