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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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by Rebecca Ripperton
August 15, 2019
Earlier this summer, we wrote about a book called The Land. Although the last published of all Mildred D. Taylor’s books, The Land is technically the first of the six books that compose the Logan Family Saga. The Saga also contains three other full-length novels that are set after The Land, and two novellas. In this post, we’re focusing on those three full-length novels: Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry (1976), Let the Circle Be Unbroken (1981), and The Road to Memphis (1992). These books all follow Paul-Edward Logan’s young grand-daughter, Cassie Logan, and her immediate family members. Although Paul-Edward has passed away, Cassie, her mother and father, three brothers, and Big Ma (Paul-Edward’s cherished wife) all still live on the land that Paul-Edward and Caroline fought so hard to obtain decades earlier.
Of all the Mildred Taylor books, it is these three books that are best known to modern readers, and for excellent reason: Cassie and her siblings are the sort of protagonists that every young reader longs for in a novel – precocious, strong-willed, and daring.
As in The Land, the conflicts that arise in these books are primarily centered on issues of race. Cassie and her family are the direct descendants of slaves and live on 400 acres of property that they own themselves, a rare accomplishment at the time. However, despite owning their own land, the family continues to struggle to protect it, and continues to fight to protect their children from discrimination and even danger.
One of the most moving aspects of this series is observing how these encounters affect the children. Cassie and one of her brothers, Little Man, have a particularly hard time coming to grips with the ways in which they are treated differently than their white peers, and refuse to accept the racial injustices they routinely encounter, often at a significant cost to themselves and their family. Another theme that is shared between these books and The Land is that of friendship and the near impossibility of white and black people sustaining relationships of any kind with one another. The character Jeremy Simms perhaps best illustrates this issue, becoming simultaneously a hero and a pariah in the beginning of The Road to Memphis.
We’ve given a brief overview of each book here, and just as we did in our post on The Land, we’ve added discussion questions about the aforementioned issues as well as a handful of others at the end of the post, so be sure to take a look at those, as well!
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is Mildred Taylor’s Newbery-winning introduction to Cassie Logan and her family. Cassie lives in a multi-generational home with her older brother, Stacy, and two younger brothers, Christopher and Little Man, Mary and David (her mother and father), and Big Ma on the acreage that Paul-Edward bought years earlier in The Land. Mary is a school-teacher, and teaches at the same school where her children are students, while David farms the homestead and also works on the railroad in Louisiana during a portion of the year.
The book opens with an account of “night men” and references to three black men being burned at the hands of some of their own neighbors. It is clear from this point onward that there is significant racial unrest in the community, and David quickly returns home from the railroad with a friend, Mr. Morrison, who remains behind on the land in order to protect the family in David's absence.
Mary and David are adamant that their children not visit places in town where they would interact with the men (and sort of men) who were responsible for the burnings, most notably the Wallace store. T.J. Avery, Stacy’s best friend, however, feels no such compunction himself and begins spending an increasing amount of time both at the Wallace store and with the Simms brothers who are notoriously cruel and disrespectful toward black people. Stacy watches as his friend T.J. follows a sharp downward trajectory, which culminates in T.J.'s arrest and some very serious accusations levied against him. In the meantime, however, the Logans have organized a boycott of the Wallace store among the African-American community, which leads to serious trouble for their family in more ways than one.
Among the most powerful scenes in this book are Cassie and Little Man’s personal encounters with serious racial injustice and their struggle to accept the lesser treatment that is so often meted out to them. Jeremy Simms is another notable figure in this book, and a character who is quietly impactful throughout the series.
Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry is best suited for readers ages 10 and up, and makes for an excellent family or classroom read-aloud.
In Let the Circle Be Unbroken, T.J. must face the consequences of his ill-advised associations with the Simms brothers. Here we see T.J. standing trial, with Mr. Wade Jamison (whom careful readers will also remember from The Land) as his defense attorney. After T.J.’s trial is finished, Stacy steals away from his family in the dead of night to look for work outside of town. The children’s father, David, has been traveling for work in order to meet their expenses, and Stacy is determined to contribute to the family, as well, but knows his parents will not approve of his working on a plantation or in a camp instead of being in school. The family and Mr. Jamison go to extraordinary lengths to search for Stacy and bring him home, but his whereabouts continue to elude them, much to their fear and sorrow.
During this time, Cassie’s cousin, Suzella, comes to stay with the family, with Cassie struggling to accept her presence in the home. Suzella’s presence is further complicated because she has a black father (Mary’s brother) and a white mother, and she not only easily passes for being a young white woman, but she seems to prefer doing so. Cassie in particular does not approve of this decision, while also fearing that the ever-charming Suzella will supplant her.
Finally, Cassie and her mother help one of their elderly neighbors, Mrs. Lee Annie prepare to take a voting test, despite the fact that black people in their area were neither welcomed nor accepted as voters. However, Mrs. Lee Annie is determined to at least attempt the voting test, both on principle and as an example to others, so Mary and Cassie reluctantly agree to help her. In order to prepare, Mrs. Lee Annie essentially memorizes the entire U.S. Constitution, and internalizes its spirit as well as its letter. However, whether or not she is permitted to vote remains to be seen!
Let the Circle Be Unbroken is recommended for readers ages 10 and up, although older readers will certainly still find this book to be highly engaging. However, like all of Mildred Taylor's books, this is one we recommend reading aloud or in a discussion setting. Parents may also want to read these books ahead of time in order to be prepared for the discussions and questions that these stories may spark.
In The Road to Memphis, the final book of the saga, Cassie is away at high school in Jackson, Mississippi, and is looking into applying to colleges. Her particular interest lies in studying law, which she has been reading about both extensively and of her own accord. Her older brother Stacy and their close friend Moe are also living in Jackson, where they work in a factory alongside their friend Little Willie. Although the Logan children have been in dangerous situations before, they are now in the unusual position of protecting the life of their close friend, Moe, who must disappear into the North in order to survive after a terrible encounter he has with Jeremy Simms’ cousins. The fact that the Logans and their friends are more or less on their own between Jackson and Memphis adds to the somber tone of the novel; David and Mary are no longer able to protect their children, and Cassie, Stacy, and their friends must defend themselves as best they can.
I would argue that this particular book is more mature than the others, but not necessarily because its storyline or events are more complicated or painful than those of earlier books. Rather, relationships are given a stronger focus in this book and Cassie herself is conflicted over her relationship with Moe, who seems to feel something more for her than she feels for him, and later conflicted over another man who assists them in Memphis. There is also simply more ambiguity here about the fate of the characters we have grown to love with all our hearts, and that fact alone can be hard to accept. But in all, we see Stacy and Cassie come into their own as the strong man and woman their parents raised them to become.
Like the other two books, The Road to Memphis is recommended for readers ages 10 and up. Please see our comments on the age recommendation for Let the Circle Be Unbroken for further guidance about ages.
We quoted Mildred Taylor’s “Note to the Reader” from The Land at the beginning of our post on that book, and in preparing to write this post, I came across an interview she gave to The Brown Bookshelf in 2008. I wanted to include a portion of that interview here, as well, about criticism that Mildred Taylor has garnered in recent years. She speaks to the matter far more eloquently and incisively than we would ever be able to, and it felt appropriate to bookend our posts with her own words.
“Recently [...] there has been a backlash of parents, minority parents included, and educators who do not want children to read books such as mine. Some of the people who voice these opinions do not like the “n” word being used, because they believe it brings too much pain to a child reading such a word.
But how can readers understand the true history of the past or the need for a civil rights movement unless they have begun to understand the pain of those who suffered through slavery, discrimination, and segregation? How can readers feel the pain if I pretty up the way things were?
What I least like to do is write down words that hurt. I cringe at the thought of any child being hurt by my words, but as much as it hurts me to write words of pain, I know that they must be written, for they are truthful words about the time I write.
They are painful to me to write and they are painful to those who read them, but they are needed for the full understanding of what life was like for African-Americans before the Civil Rights Movement.
I remember what it was like. I remember the pain of what life was like and I want others to recognize that pain in order for all generations to appreciate why there was a Civil Rights Movement and to appreciate the great freedom of rights and opportunities we enjoy today.”
— Mildred D. Taylor. Interview with The Brown Bookshelf, Feb. 2008. Online.
What about you all? Do you have prior experience with Mildred Taylor's books, or memories of reading them in the past? What discussions questions would you add to our list? Please share your thoughts and memories with us in a comment below!