Why did I never get this book as a kid? I would have been full-on obsessed with this book. I feel like half this blog is me reading stuff I knew well as a kid and half of it is me discovering books and going “HOW IS THIS SO AWESOME? Some kids are so lucky!”
The Birchbark House, Louise Erdrich, 1999.
Man, Louise Erdrich is so great. Is there anything she can’t do? Her adult books are transcendentally wonderful, and I knew vaguely about the Birchbark House books but didn’t actually sit down and read them until, uh, last year. I know, shame on me. They’re so good! They’re usually compared to the Little House books, in that they’re stories about a young girl growing up and the details of her daily life, but they really pull no punches. In the Little House books you’re three or four books in until you really start to get a sense of some of the danger and fear in the Ingalls’ lives, but in Birchbark House? No such luck. Smack in the face with the hardship of life! No messing around!
But with all the really harsh harsh harshness, there’s Erdrich’s beautiful writing and some wonderful scenes that are just remarkably well put-together. Omakayas is such a fun and realistic little girl—she really wants to do good and help her family, but she’s like, eight, so she screws up and fights with her siblings and does other dumb kid stuff. It’s just so, so, so well put-together. Omakayas is actually adopted—her real family died in a smallpox epidemic when she was a small baby, and she was rescued by Old Tallow, the eccentric old lady who’s a friend of her family, and adopted by her parents.
Omakayas lives with her family in their Ojibwe settlement—her father, Ice, her mother Yellow Kettle, grandmother Nokomis, older sister Angeline, annoying younger brother Pinch, and infant brother Neewo. Life is smooth and comfortable for her family—her father is a half-white fur trader who is frequently away, but her mother and grandmother keep everything going at home. Pinch is a spoiled little boy who Omakayas doesn’t actually like very much, and Angeline is her beautiful teenage sister who can be somewhat callous, “as very beautiful people sometimes are.”
One of the first big things to happen in the book is that Omakayas spots two bear cubs in the woods and tries to play with them, only to be tumbled around by the angry mama bear. She escapes by talking gently and calmly to the mother bear, but is very shaken by her experience until she realizes that her encounter with the bear was something special, and gives her a special connection with them
The best part of these books is the detail that goes into every tiny little thing—the description of the characters, the household chores, their home, the change in seasons, everything. It’s so great. What is not great is that every year there are more and more and more white people coming to the Ojibwe’s land—building homes and farms and churches and villages. Some of them live in harmony with the Ojibwe, and there’s a school in the village to teach the Ojibwe to read and write in English, but plenty of them think they’d be better off moving further west where the whites won’t bother them. (Spoiler alert: this doesn’t work.)
The families go to harvest rice in the fall, and afterwards Omakayas’s family move to their winter cabin near the village. Angeline goes to the school occasionally to learn English, and the family spends their time making snowshoes and new clothing and moccasins, and telling stories. They spend time with their friends—Angeline’s best friend Ten Snows and her husband Fishtail, and the eccentric old woman Old Tallow, who lives alone with her dogs in a wigwam stuffed with junk.
But just as the friends and neighbours are enjoying their winter festivities, a visitor stops by looking tired and draggled, and dies the next day of smallpox. They try to burn everything he’s touched, but it’s too late, and smallpox begins to sweep through their village. Ten Snows is the first, and then the following week Angeline comes down with it, and her mother tries to quarantine her by sending everyone else into a different birchbark house. But then her mother gets sick too, and Nokomis goes to nurse them—then Pinch, and then the baby Neewo, and then her father. Omakayas moves them all into the cabin to help Nokomis with the sick ones. Neewo dies in Omakayas’s arms. “Nokomis had said that the Ojibwa must walk a path that leads out of this life into the next, and since Neewo couldn’t walk very well yet, who would carry him when he got tired, when he fell? Who would make sure he was fed in the other world? Who would make him toy man dolls to dance?” I’m crying. This is awful.
Old Tallow comes by to help and let Omakayas and Nokomis rest, but Omakayas’s father is so mad with fever that he tries to stagger out into the snow, and Omakayas has to crack him on the head with wood to keep him from leaving. He lives—and so do the others—but Angeline is terribly scarred. Ten Snows dies, and Fishtail tries to kill himself, so grieved by the death of his wife.
They recover, slowly, along with everyone else in the village, and none of them have the strength to hunt or fish in the cold. They grow hungry and begin to eat acorns and nuts—but Nokomis dreams a dream that Omakayas’s father must hunt a special one-horned buck in a certain place, and that deer saves the family from sheer starvation in the depths of winter.
When the winter breaks they all go maple sugaring along with Fishtail and their cousins, and Nokomis begins to teach Omakayas a very little bit about the herbs and medicines that she collects for everyone. But other than that, they have a wonderful time socializing, gossiping, sugaring off, and catching up with their friends and cousins after the dreadful winter of sickness and hunger. But Pinch is so overexcited with everything that he bumps into their father, who is pouring boiling syrup into a trough and spills it onto Pinch’s feet.
Omakayas is the only one there who can do anything for him, and immediately tries to remember what Nokomis taught her and doctors up Pinch as best she can. When her father comes back with Nokomis, she congratulates Omakayas, saying she couldn’t have done a better job herself, and that Omakayas will be a great healer one day.
When the family goes back to their birchbark house in the spring, Old Tallow comes for a visit to tell Omakayas a story about herself. She says that there’s a reason Omakayas didn’t come down with the smallpox like everyone else—it’s because Old Tallow rescued her from a different island as an infant, where everyone else had died of smallpox, and had given her to Mikwam and Yellow Kettle to raise since she knew she couldn’t do it herself. And that Omakayas was sent to them to help her family through the smallpox, since Nokomis couldn’t have done it by herself.
Omakayas realizes that her life is all a journey, and even though she doesn’t know how it will end, she knows that she can try to understand things as best she can and listen for the spirit of her little brother to help her.
Rating: A. God, these books are all so good. Erdrich is such a brilliant and beautiful writer—the genius of the Little House books is the blend of everyday detail and the stresses of everyday life, but I think these books are actually even better at that. I know almost less than nothing about daily life among 19th-century Aboriginal groups, but this is written so well and charmingly that it slides in a ton of knowledge without you even realizing you’re getting it. Combined with the family life details—Omakayas is so very real, she’s childish and funny and selfish and smart and loving and has the beginnings of wisdom; and her family is all well-drawn with good and bad sides. Her father can be distant and intimidating, but also funny and strong, and her mother is anxious and irritable but also wonderfully strong and loving. Omakayas’s grief—and her whole family’s grief—over losing Neewo is so raw and harsh and realistic for anyone who’s lost anyone. Everything about this book is just so, so, so well done. Right now there are four books in the series—The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee follow this one, and I desperately hope that Erdrich finishes the seven books in the series she’s been planning. They’re so good I won’t be able to handle it if they stop in the middle.