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.
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.
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.
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.
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