The Game of Silence

Look! We’re back again with Omakayas for the second edition, Darker and Worse. It’s great, but I’m not going to lie: if Birchbark House was depressing to you, you’re probably not going to like this.

The Game of Silence, Louise Erdrich, 2005.

game of silence.jpg

The very, very, very first chapter of this book, before we get into anything, straight-up tells you it’s going to be a bad time. A group of ragged, starving people reach Omakayas’s family’s settlement—their leader is Miskobines, the uncle of Fishtail—a family friend. They’re all starving, and Omakayas’s mother takes a baby that no one could identify but the starving people brought with them, who becomes Omakayas’s new little brother, Bizheens. She gains a cousin, too, one of the quiet and angry-looking boys who goes to live with her other cousins.

There’s a game the adults play with the children when they need them to be quiet—the adults all contribute a gift to a pile, and the children stay silent as long as the adults are talking, and the one who lasts without talking the longest gets to pick first from the pile of presents. They know something is terribly wrong when it’s a miraculous pile of gifts. Turns out what the adults are talking about is how the white men are moving in and forcing the Ojibwe to leave their ancestral homeland and move west. They agree to send scouts to see what’s happened—maybe there’s been a treaty dispute or an Ojibwe killed a white man and this is retribution. Fishtail agrees to go out, as do a couple of other men, and Angeline (Omakayas’s very beautiful older sister) sends Fishtail off that summer and no one knows exactly what will happen when they come back. Omakayas is afraid they’re going to be forced to leave the only home she’s ever known, and even knowing that she won’t be separated from her family isn’t enough to soothe her fear.

While Omakayas mostly plays with her cousins, she also knows a white girl that they call the Break-apart Girl, because she looks so fragile and weak. This is a particularly enjoyable section for me, because there’s an awful lot of stories out there where the white girl meets a mysterious Indian friend (I know there’s a million examples but the Kirsten books in American Girl are leaping to mind right now), but I really enjoy the reversed perspective here. And I like how it’s mostly Omakayas and her sister trying to figure out why the girl is so damn weird.

Omakayas begins to dream strangely meaningful dreams. Her grandmother Nokomis thinks it may be time for her to fast and learn more about them, but Omakayas can’t bear to do it. She doesn’t want the responsibility or to grow up that fast, so she keeps putting it off and putting it off and trying to spend as much time as possible with her cousins and sister instead. But Angeline is too dreamy thinking about Fishtail, whom she’s in love with, and Omakayas doesn’t always get along with her cousins—especially Two Strike, a girl who’s as good a hunter or better than any boy her age, and brash and loud and badly-behaved to go along with it. Omakayas and her cousin Twilight try to impress everyone by harvesting rice without even being told, but they end up ruining it instead and Two Strike kills a moose on the very same day, which makes their humiliation even worse. Omakayas is given the unenviable and gross task of tanning that moose hide, and she feels that all of the world is a horrible place.

In the fall, Omakayas and Nokomis gather the last herbs and help to pack away the good stores for the winter. Two Strike tries to order Omakayas around—she’s gotten entirely too full of herself after killing the moose, and even tries to order Omakayas’s mother around and puts down the hard work that Omakayas does with the other women. Even though she’s punished, Two Strike comes up with a war party of the other little boys, including Pinch, Omakayas’s little brother. They intend to attack Old Tallow’s dogs, so Omakayas warns her the night before. The warriors are caught and punished and humiliated, but Omakayas is glad that Pinch isn’t too badly hurt. They’re so ashamed that even Two Strike calms down a bit.

When winter comes, Omakayas’s family stays inside and tell stories to each other and make snowshoes and play in the snow, and Angeline and Omakayas go to the white school to learn to write a little bit of English. They’re caught out in a cold snap when they go trapping, and Omakayas almost freezes with Nokomis—then Old Tallow doesn’t come back at all. When Omakayas’s father finds her, she’s nearly frozen. She recovers except for her little finger, which develops gangrene, and Nokomis has to cut it off with a hatchet while Omakayas helps her—it’s part of healing.

In the depths of winter Cloud, one of the men who went out on a research expedition, returns to the village a shell of a man. He reports that the treaty wasn’t broken, but the government has failed to give the Ojibwe anything they’ve been promised—the food they did receive at Sandy Lake was full of worms and rotting. The people were dying in droves from the treatment and the food, and the white men just left them there.

Angeline is convinced for sure that Fishtail will come back—is so sure that she begins to sew him a wedding vest for his return. Winter is almost over and they can start looking for his return, but Omakayas’s father sets out with the white priest, Father Baraga, to take him to another camp. They’re delayed coming back so long that the family begins to worry that the ice will break up and strand them somewhere, and then Omakayas dreams a dream that they’re trapped on an island by the breaking ice.

Miskobines goes with Old Tallow and Omakayas’s angry new cousin, the Angry One or Little Thunder, and they return three days later with Omakayas’s father and the priest. They were exactly where Omakayas had dreamed they would be after they were trapped on a chunk of ice in the wide-open lake and delivered to safety on a a tiny island. Miskobines tells Omakayas she will be a powerful dreamer one day, but she needs to learn to control her power or it will leave her.

The time has finally come for Omakayas to rub her face with charcoal and go into the woods to find her spirits, even though she doesn’t want to do it. She does, though, and goes to fast for three days by herself. The bears come to visit her, and after her fast she dreams a long and strange dream about her future—she dreams of traveling with a man, a cain made of logs, terrible sorrows and the joy of ten children and grandchildren and the life she’s going to have.

When Omakayas returns, Fishtail returns just shortly after that and while he’s delighted to see Angeline, he brings terrible news of the other Ojibwe who have died from the rotten provisions. He says that it’s true—they’re going to be forced west very shortly. She’s crushed, but her family pack all of their things in preparation for the move. Omakayas gives her dog to the Break-apart Girl, and Angeline and Fishtail go together in marriage, and Old Tallow builds a canoe with a little house to bring her dogs with her. They leave the open lake and head into a stream, heading west into the dangerous country where they have no one but each other.

Rating: B+. I loved Birchbark House, and I really enjoyed the next book in the series as well (The Porcupine Year), but this one is less interesting than those two. It’s a transitional book, and I loved some of the details that were included—like the Break-apart Girl, and the stories that the family tell to each other, and the beautiful sensory details. The book is just bursting with them, and it’s great. It’s a bit more quiet, but still beautifully told and well worth the read.

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