Time for a major time skip!

Chickadee, Louise Erdrich, 2008.


I’ve definitely raved about Louise Erdrich and the Birchbark House series before, because she and it are both so fantastic, and they’re usually compared to the Little House books. But with one, fairly major, exception! The first three Birchbark House books are about Omakayas growing up and her family, but the fourth and fifth are about her twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons. As titled, of course. I really love the concept, and I love that it’s handled very well—a lot of books and series like this tend to fall into the “exactly like it was before and everyone acts exactly as they did when they were teenagers,” but in these the focus is definitely on the children with a really interesting and well-done portrayal of Omakayas as an adult woman.

At any rate, Omakayas marries Animikiins, as was foreshadowed in The Porcupine Year, and they have twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons, which means Little Bear. They live near the great lake with the rest of their family, and as the story opens everyone else is safe at home while Animikiins is out hunting a moose and getting caught in the icy lake. He manages to survive, but just barely, while at home the boys and their sister Zozie (who is not actually their sister, but is Two Strike’s daughter (yes! Two Strike marries and then immediately discards her husband, and then essentially lets Omakayas and Angeline raise her daughter because she freely admits she has no idea what to do with kids)) are out looking for small game since it’s the end of winter and they’re all starving. Animikiins manages to snare his moose after all, but not before living through a terrible snowstorm that badly frightens Omakayas. But he makes it home safely with the moose, which will carry them through the rest of the winter and his being away is just dramatic foreshadowing for the rest of the story.

One of the things I love best about these books is the beautiful, gem-like quality of the writing. Erdrich is so good, and she doesn’t bunt just because they’re kids’ books so who cares. It really, really shows, and it’s so lovely and well-written. Just excellent.

Omakayas and Animikiins live near the rest of the family—her father MIkwam and mother Yellow Kettle, Nokomis her grandmother, and Omakaya’s sister Angeline and her husband Fishtail. Then the three children, and Two Strike when she’s around, and that’s their family unit along with the friends and neighbours nearby. Chickadee is pretty disappointed in his name, because he thinks it’s just a little bird who can’t do much of anything, but Nokomis points out that “small things have great power.” So he apologizes to the chickadee, as per her instructions, and it seems OK.

There’s an old man, Zhigaag, in their camp who is fairly nasty-tempered and no one really likes. He tells Chickadee he’s being useless, and Makoons, to take revenge, ties his shoes together and greases his coat. The next day Zhigaag is raving and ranting to everyone, especially his two enormous sons, Babiche and Batiste, who don’t really love their father at all, but do love getting revenge. That night Makoons confesses to Chickadee what he’s done, and the two men threaten them a little but nothing comes of it right away.

After sugaring time is over, Babiche and Batiste plan to kidnap one of the boys—“They have two the same! They have an extra! Why should they care?” and manage to snatch Chickadee right out of his bed in the night before anyone else notices. Omakayas wakes up to find him gone, and alerts the whole camp. They’re all distraught, but Makoons most of all—he’s never, ever been separated from his brother. And they’re eight! Poor little boys.

Batiche and Batiste carry Chickadee away quickly in the night on their horses, and Animikiins and Two Strike set out to search for them as soon as they can. Two Strike is a wonderfully developed character in this series—she starts out as kind of a mean, nasty, vindictive girl, but she grows up and matures and it’s clear that she and Omakayas grow closer as they grow up. Two Strike vows to hunt the men down, and she is no joke. The rest of the family pack up to meet in Pembina, which is where Omakayas’s little brother Quill has moved to with his wife.

Then we go back and forth between Chickadee and his pursuers. The brothers take Chicakdee to their cabin in the Plains and force him to be their servant, to clean and cook for them. He thinks he’ll do exactly as they say so they’ll let their guard down and he can escape at last. The man delivering the mail, Orph Carter, comes to the cabin, and the brothers explain how they got him and who he’s related to—and name Two Strike. Orph freaks right out and tells them (correctly, probably) that Two Strike is going to just kill them when she finds them, and leaves before he can even eat. But they pack up Chickadee and head out with the mail before they’re forced to return because the horses are ill. They send Chickadee back to the cabin with the horses while they go ahead with the mail, and Chickadee thinks he’s finally caught a break.

Shortly after that, a wagon approaches with a priest and “a number of huge gray creatures that resembled birds.” They’re nuns, not birds, and the youngest one persuades them to take Chicakdee along since he’s obviously starving. They take him off to their settlement, where the Mother Superior refuses to have anything to do with the “savage” boy despite the requests of the others. She forces him into a bath with roguh lye soap and a scrub brush, and she brings out the scissors to cut off his braids. Afraid he’s about to die, he leaps out of the water, grabs his clothes, and disappears into the woods, and that’s the end of that.

Meanwhile, the family has made it to Pembina and met Quill’s wife Margaret, a Metis woman, who isn’t crazy about them at first but warms up to them. She persuades them to stay close (although not in her house) to wait for Chickadee’s return, and so they do. Animikiins and Fishtail and Two Strike are on Chickadee’s trail, and they manage to find Babiche and Batiste, although Batiste is very sick. Two Strike threatens (and not idly) to kill them both, and the brothers tell them everything that’s happened. Fishtail goes back to town to tell the family, but Animikiins and Two Strike continue on the hunt.

Chickadee is alone in the woods now, with just his flint and a knife and almost nothing else. He cries and cries and cries (now I’m crying), and he’s so hungry he thinks he’s going to die there in the woods. But the chickadee comes to him and says that he’s been pardoned for his insult, so he’s going to help him. So the chickadee guides him to a stream near where two hawks have fought over a rabbit. Chicakdee finds the stream, helps untangle the fighting hawks, feeds them with part of the rabbit, and they agree to help him as he has helped them. So Chickadee heads off, following the stream, and eventually finds a well-worn cart trail and follows that instead, eating what he can find and missing home.

And then, amazingly, a cart train comes along and who does he see but his uncle Quill! He’s rescued! Quill is so surprised that he almost falls over (obviously), but he scoops him up and feeds him up and suddenly everything looks much better.

Two Strike and Animikiins manage to find the cabin with the two sad, starving horses, and Two Strike looks after them and the horses immediately pledge themselves to her forever. In the meantime, Quill and Chickadee are on the cart train making their way, and Quill teaches Chickadee all about the Metis people and the business of fur trading. One old woman even fixes up Chickadee’s clothing for him.

Back at home, Makoons is not doing very well without his brother. He’s depressed and constantly has some ailment or another, and as much as Omakayas tries to reassure him, it’s hard when she’s just as worried about Chickadee. Nokomis begins to worry that he’ll just pine away without him. While he’s pining away, Chickadee is seeing St. Paul, amazed at all the people and buildings, and Quill buys him a stick of candy that Chicakdee saves half of for his twin. And then Quill takes him on the long road home—beset terribly by mosquitos almost all the way. Back at home, Makoons is nearly dying, and Omakayas is desperately afraid she’s going to lose both of her sons at once. Two Strike manages to coax him onto the horses, which he enjoys for a moment before sinking back into a depression when he gets off.

Of all people, Babiche and Batiste find the oxcart train, and Chickadee isn’t exactly afraid, but he doesn’t think anything good will happen. They’ve convinced themselves that they just loved Chickadee and he was the best servant, and so they agree to help the cart train push out of the mud it’s been sucked into.

After a long, long trip home through the plains and rocks, accompanied by Babiche and Batiste, back in Pembina Makoons is waking up in his fever saying he can hear his brother. Omakayas is afraid he means he hears Chickadee from the spirit world, and she and Animikiins are deeply frightened. But then—Chickadee walks through the door with Quill—and everything is all right again.

Rating: A. This book is equal parts terrifying and excellent. It’s the ultimate in a parental horror—imagining that one of your children has been kidnapped and there’s literally nothing you can do, while the other one is almost wasting away from being separated from him. But it’s such a pleasure to read about Chickadee, who is smart and capable and clever even though he’s frightened. I so enjoyed reading about Omakayas all grown up, and all the other characters, too. And like I said, Erdrich does not pull any punches even though it’s a kids’ book, so it has a complex narrative that’s still clear and easy to follow and just wonderfully written all the same.


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