We’re back in the Birchbark House for the third installment!
The Porcupine Year, Louise Erdrich, 2008.
OK, so The Game of Silence was pretty depressing, let’s see if the third book will be any better. At this point, Omakayas is twelve and her family has moved from their original home, and it looks like things might be stabilizing a bit. But clearly not all that much, because as we open Omakayas and her younger brother Pinch are in the process of being washed away in a canoe down some rapids. But they end up lost and alone further down the river without a good idea of how to get home.
They find a baby porcupine which looks delicious, but in the process of hunting it, Pinch gets quilled badly in the face—but instead of eating it, Pinch vows to spare the porcupine’s life. So even though Omakayas would rather not, they bring it with them to camp and then head out the next morning, porcupine riding comfortably on Quill’s head. The rapids that they lived through are so dramatic and awful that they’re sure that a protector spirit helped them through it, and Omakayas sacrifices her red beads that her grandmother gave her in thanks.
The two of them make it back without too much trouble, but they’re horrified when they approach the camp to hear mourning and weeping and wailing, thinking someone has died. But it turns out the whole family thinks they were killed, of course. Pinch wants to dress up as a ghost to scare them (this is all a nice little homage to Tom Sawyer, as well), and Omakayas lets herself be talked into it, even though she feels bad about it. The family is horrified at first and then pleased to see them alive, although irritated with them. Pinch is renamed Quill, after his new medicine animal.
Once they’re all reunited, the women go berry-picking and treat the hides, and while it’s interesting to read about and loaded with detail, there’s not a lot of actual plot. Animikiins and his father are living with the family now, and he and Omakayas are growing just a little bit closer as they approach their teenage years.
The family opts to keep moving north to meet up with the rest of their family, since the winters where they are have been so hard and so cold there. Old Tallow especially is eager to go, but the disagreement settles on whether they want to risk it against the white men there who keep breaking their promises. They begin to make their preparations for traveling, including drying meat, where Omakayas accidentally falls asleep and loses some of the meat to an eagle. But knowing that it will come back, she waits patiently and manages to snatch two white feathers off the animal—a very, very sacred gift. Omakayas’s father is so proud of her that he wants to give her a new name to befit her womanly status, but Omakayas asks him not to, to keep her baby name. They build her a sweat lodge and put on a feast for her, and even though they’ll still call her Omakayas, they give her an adult name—Ogimabinesikwe, Thunderbird Woman.
After that, the family makes their way north, and on their first evening when they arrive on a shore Old Tallow’s dogs alert her that someone is waiting for them. It’s a little white boy and his toddler sister, who have been orphaned in a fire that destroyed their cabin. But before they can go look for their family, the wildfire reaches the shore, and they’re forced to spend the night on their canoes in the safety of the lake. And during the long night on the lake, Omakayas’s father tells about the one time he met his father, a white Frenchman. His mother had spent so long preparing him and teaching him how to act, and then walked a hundred miles with him to see the guy, and when Deydey went up to him—he laughed and laughed and laughed. So Deydey turned around and left and never trusted the white men again.
The white children’s family can’t be found anywhere, so they bring the kids along with them. They encounter a party of Dakotas and hide, but that evening Quill and Animikiins go off together to see if they can trap an animal. But they don’t come back that night. Or the next night or the next. The family makes camp to search for them, and they wait a whole month until finally the search party returns with the good news that they are alive, but were captured by the Dakota. The chief agreed to talk with Deydey, and tells them they were only looking for a captive to replace the chief’s son, finally settling on Quill. The boys fought hard, but the chief has become attached and doesn’t want to let them go. Deydey’s solution is that they will become brothers—for one year, he and Quill and the porcupine will stay with them. Miskobines, Animikiins’ father, offers to go in Quill’s place, and the chief asks why he should let him go after he becomes attached—and Animikiins says he has to return to a girl!
So Animikins and Miskobines stay, while Deydey and Fishtail and Quill return home and the rest of the family moves on, missing them. Omakayas is acutely aware that things are changing—she’s growing older, is what’s happening. But soon they have bigger problems, as they run into Albert LaPautre, their uncle and Aunt Muskrat’s husband. But it’s no mistake that he runs into them, because he is really there to steal from them, along with two other desperate men. Deydey narrowly escapes death from a gunshot, but as they’re distracted the men make off with the settler’s children, even though everyone chases them as hard as they possibly can. In an instant, they’ve gone from having everything they needed, to having nothing plus missing one member and Deydey is blinded from the gunpowder flash.
They keep bathing his eyes while they wait there for the winter freeze-up. They have so little—Fishtail’s gun, the knives, Omakayas’s blanket, a kettle and rice knocker, Old Tallow’s dogs. They miss the children desperately, and they know it’s going to be a long and hungry winter for them out there. They even stole Nokomis’s bag of seeds, her life’s work, her future gardens. So instead they just wait there, trying to hunt as much as they can before the snows come.
Everything runs out quickly, though, and they search for whatever they can as winter sets in. They’re starving slowly, and eating mice and old leather that’s been stewed. Old Tallow is the only one who has the strength to get up and go hunting every single day with her dogs, even though they’re just as hungry. Deydey, still recovering his sight, even says that he would eat LaPautre if he could find him. Omakayas dreams of her special helper, the bear woman, who says that she will take one of them but allow the rest to live. But they’re all near-death from starvation, drinking nothing but balsam tea to avoid the hunger pangs. Quill finally says that his porcupine would save all of their lives and offers to fetch him from his winter hibernation spot, but Old Tallow says they won’t eat the porcupine that tried to help them during the raid. Instead, Old Tallow declares she will go out to hunt the bear.
As much as they all want to go after her, they don’t have the strength. Fishtail and Quill have two bullets left and manage to follow her, and Omakayas follows after them to help Old Tallow, who had rescued her when she was a baby all alone. Quill is the first to drop, unable to go on, and then one of Old Tallow’s dogs, and then another dead dog that Fishtail is dragging back to eat. Fishtail falls, and then it’s just Omakayas who finds Old Tallow and the bear, standing in the clearing, clutching each other, both dead.
They feed themselves with the bear meat very, very slowly, to avoid making themselves ill, and although they are getting better Omakayas still misses Old Tallow very badly. Nokomis tells them all stories while they wait to recover—Deydey even recovers his eyesight in full. Then they pack up the little that they have and begin to travel again, and Quill has to leave his porcupine behind.
On their way they find Animikiins and Miskobines, released from the Dakota, who have been following their trail and trying to get back to them. They even found Deydey’s medicine bag along the way, which had his pipe and Omakayas’s eagle feathers in it, and they bring the news that two white children were given up to a priest in the area and sent to a school with some other children. Animikiins asks Omakayas to walk out a little ways with him, playing a flute that the Dakota taught him to make, and for the first time that night “she wondered if he was asleep and if he dreamed….She wondered if he was dreaming of her.”
At last they make it to Muskrat’s camp and meet up with the rest of their family—Omakayas’s aunt Muskrat, her cousins Two Strike and Twilight and Amoosens. Omakayas is jealous of how Two Strike and Animikiins go out together almost every day, trapping and hunting—and Quill is a little jealous, too, of how Two Strike is stealing away his brother and friend. But comeuppance comes when Two Strike kills a couple of beavers and commands her cousins to serve her. Muskrat says that Two Strike was the one who saved them that winter, but Nokomis says that Old Tallow hunted for them all their life and never once disrespected any of them, nor does Deydey, nor does Fishtail, nor does Miskobines. Muskrat throws an attitude at her mother, saying that it’s none of her business how she raises her child, and Deydey says the only reason they’re there in the first place with nothing is because of her husband, LaPautre, the thief! Omakayas’s mother and Nokomis put their heads together to try to get Miskobines and Muskrat together the way they’d always hoped, in an effort to heal things.
As the winter grows old, Nokomis tells Omakayas all about how her body will change, and how Two Strike rejected her woman house and went out hunting instead. She tells Omakayas about how Old Tallow was just as tender and sweet as Omakayas when they were girls together, even though Omakayas doesn’t quite believe it.
Muskrat and Miskobines do marry one another, just as the ice begins to break up and they are able to catch fish again. The first night they have enough to eat, Animikiins asks Omakayas to go for a walk with him again, and he plays the flute for her again that night. It’s not long after that when Omakayas becomes a woman, and Nokomis makes her a little woman house and everyone gives her gifts. The rest of the camp goes ahead to the sugaring camp, while Omakayas and Nokomis stay behind in the woman lodge, and Nokomis tells her all about Old Tallow—how she once was a young girl named Light Moving in the Leaves, but her family died of a sickness and she had nothing left and was sold to a voyageur, an evil man who used her as a pack animal. She was forced to sleep with the dogs and eat with them, but she grew strong and learned their ways and eventually forgot that she was a woman, not a dog. The dogs grew loyal to her instead of the voyageur, and one day the voyageur grew sick and weak and asked her for help—since he fed her occasionally and gave her one blanket. But Tallow—she was Tallow then—fed him that night, but then the dogs told her that she was their true master but the voyageur was their decision. And the dogs ate him, and they took Tallow as their new master and guarded her all their lives, and their children and their grandchildren, and they were the only family Tallow had besides Nokomis’s family after that. “Old Tallow had been just. She had known exactly how long to live. When her life would count the most, she freely gave it. She was proof, in her love, of a love greater than we know. For how, in that heart treated worse than a dog’s, had the capacity for such deep kindness grown?”
Nokomis teaches Omakayas all about her body and how babies are made and what medicines were used for, and how to predict weather and to avoid whiskey and how to read her dreams, and how she must avoid stepping over streams and guns and eating berries for a whole year. And then she helps Omakayas make gifts for everyone else in the family as they prepare to go and rejoin the rest of them and keep on moving forward.
Rating: B+. I enjoy these books so much. The writing is so beautiful, and they’re so descriptive and wonderful. I actually read this one for the first time on a plane and when Old Tallow died I cried an embarrassing amount. My seatmate gave me weird looks. It’s just so full of emotion, everywhere—grief, joy, awakenings, love, pride, fear, everything. It’s so wonderfully done. The only thing keeping me from giving it an unqualified A is that at times it seemed like big chunks of time were skipped over, and I would have loved more detail on all of those. Well, on all of it. More book, I should say! That’s what would have made it better!