I catalogued Louise Erdrich‘s The Birchbark House as our last chapter book read-aloud of 2011, though we actually just finished it up this week. I have mixed feelings about this chapter book which I will try to express in this review. Some spoilers will be necessary to explain the whys and wherefores of my mixed feelings about this middle grade chapter book that I read to my kindergartener and second grader.
I chose this book because ever since the first time I heard of it (way back in library school, which was about a decade ago now), I have wanted to read it. I remember either reading something or hearing something to the effect that The Birchbark House is the Native American response to the idea set forth in Little House in the Big Woods that the woods were empty of people save the Ingalls family. In other words, the woods were not empty; they were teeming with Native American life. Instead of the big woods of Wisconsin, this story takes place on an island in Lake Superior, but the time period is approximately correct: The Birchbark House takes place in 1847. It’s the story of one year in the life of an Ojibwa child, Omakayas. Omakayas lives with her mother, grandmother, older sister Angeline, younger brother Pinch, and baby brother Neewo, as well as occasionally her father, who makes a living running traps and furs for a fur company and thus is absent for part of the year. The book is divided into sections by season, so we vicariously experience the good times and the hard times of the Ojibwa.
The Birchbark House is an beautifully written book, just exactly the kind I love to share with my girls. It’s not so complicated that it’s difficult to follow, but the prose is gorgeously descriptive:
Running over to a bark-lined pit in the ground, she jumped in and began treading rice with a frantic pace that made everyone around her laugh. It was the sight of the impatient Two Strike Girl dancing the rice that Omakayas would remember long after, in the deep winter of the year. Her face was flushed and thrilled with effort. She was tireless. All day, and the next, Two Strike’s legs moved up and down, her feet, in clean new makazins, crushed the tough hulls. She never stopped. And all the time her eyes were shining, her white teeth set in a huge grin. Andeg [Omakayas’ pet crow] danced up and down with her on a limb above. (98)
I love that Omakayas is just about the same age as my girls, so much of what she feels, thinks, and experiences rings true to them. Her aggravation with her younger brother Pinch (who is quite the scamp!), her love for her baby brother Neewo, her longing to be older, like Angeline–both my girls can relate to parts of this, by turns. Omakayas fits into her family just like a vital cog in the workings of a smoothly-running clock. I love Erdrich‘s depiction of family life.
Warning: Spoilers ahead!
Things were going along swimmingly, as far as my girls were concerned, until we got to the climax of the story. A stranger shows up in their village, and with him he brings an unwelcome guest: smallpox. It’s a heartwrenching episode, made all the worse by the fact that baby Neewo dies. Yes! He does! And Omakayas is holding him, no less. All three of us were really undone by this, but one of my girls is slightly more sensitive to tragedy than the other, and she chose to quit listening to the story for a bit when this happened. When she rejoined the read-aloud session, we discussed how we’re all particularly sensitive to this because we have the DLM, who is just a bit older than Neewo apparently is when he dies. I don’t think my girl ever recovered from that episode, though to be sure, Omakayas herself deals with her grief throughout the rest of the book. (Actually, this is another strength of the story–that it deals with grief–if only it didn’t cut so close to the quick for us!) In fact, my daughter will tell you that she doesn’t like this book, and I’d say it’s just because she took Neewo’s death so hard. If you have sensitive children, take note.
The other thing that made me a little uncomfortable with this story is the repeated occurrence of Native American religion. Of course, it’s not like reading a nonfiction passage about the Ojibwa and their beliefs in medicine, spirits, etc. Instead, Louise Erdrich’s writing is so good that it’s almost like being there, in the middle of Omakayas’ awakening to her own gifts and abilities. On one hand, if what you’re after is a real (I assume, given that the author is Ojibwa herself) depiction of their practices and beliefs, this is good. On the other hand, if your own convictions make dwelling on and reading about such practices in a personal way uncomfortable for you, this story might be too close to the edge. I think it got awfully close for me. It did give us plenty of opportunity to discuss our beliefs and compare the Ojibwa beliefs to what the Bible teaches. I almost wish I had waited until my girls are a little older to read this, but I think I’d still want to read it with them.
The bottom line is this: The Birchbark House is a beautifully written book that is full of cultural and relational insight, humor, and just plain old fun, but it’s not without its difficulties. I give it a Highly Recommended on literary merit, but with the caveats mentioned above. (Hyperion, 1999)