The Birchbark House

During the first quarantine summer (2020), my family and I were binging heavily on the “Little House On the Prairie” television show and starting to read Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” novels. My wife, who read all those novels as a child, suggested we look into a series of young adult novels told from the perspective of some Native American tribes that lived roughly in the same time and place depicted by Wilder. Louise Erdrich has a series of five young adult novels, together known by the title of the first book in the series, “The Birchbark House.”

The first three novels follow the childhood years of a girl, Omakayas, whose people are the Anishinabe (also known as Chippewa); they are sometimes referred to by the name of their language, Ojibwe. She grows up in the late 1840s and early 1850s more or less in the area that became Minnesota.

I read “The Birchbark House” during that first quarantine summer. I had read only one of the “Little House” books by then (the third, “Little House On the Prairie”), so I could only make a limited comparison of the two series. I could see they were similar in many ways, but “Birchbark” quickly became for me something unique that stood on its own.

Standing out for me right away were three stories-within-the-story that seem to be taken from native lore: “Deydey’s Ghost Story”, “Grandma’s Story: Fishing the Dark Side of the Lake”, and a creation story, “Nanabozho and Muskrat Make An Earth.” These stories by themselves would make it an outstanding book, and they’re not just for children: they are dark and resonant. I actually wondered if they would be okay for my kids, who can be somewhat sensitive to ghost stories.

Omakayas and her family struggle both with a merciless winter and an outbreak of smallpox, and though the book is perfectly appropriate for young adults, it’s not always easy reading. There’s grieving here that, without being maudlin or sentimental, stays with you.

The character that grabbed me hardest was an old woman known as Tallow:

Although she lived in town, Old Tallow was so isolated by the force and strangeness of her personality that she could have been surrounded by a huge dark forest.  She had never had any children, and each of her three husbands had slunk off in turn during the night, never to be seen again.  Nobody knew exactly what it was that Tallow, in her younger days, had done to drive them off.  It had probably been something terrible.  After the last husband left, her face seemed to have gotten old suddenly, though the rest of her hadn’t weakened.  She was a rangy woman over six feet in height.  She was powerful, lean, and lived surrounded by ferocious animals more wolf than dog.

Right there you see, these books may have an undercurrent of sorrow, but they’re humorous too.

In the middle of reading “The Birchbark House,” I stumbled upon “War and Peace”, a book that took me hostage and dragged me off in another direction. But I planned to read the rest of the “Birchbark” series, and I’ve done that now, finishing it earlier this month.

The second book is “The Game of Silence,” set in 1849 (the same year that Huck and Jim set out on the Mississippi, a little bit farther south). I did not enjoy this one as much as the first, and I thought the adults were left a little idealized.  (That’s something I don’t enjoy in certain “Little House” books as well.) “Silence” seemed particularly tame having just finished “Huckleberry Finn”, which of course is a bit unfair since “Silence” is a young adult novel. But the original “Birchbark” was darker; it had troubled my dreams the night that I finished it, a year earlier.

Incidentally, anyone who has read the “Birchbark” books knows that the characters often have significant dreams at night, in which they seek visions.  I don’t typically have dreams in response to books – no dreams that I can remember – so I sometimes wonder if “Birchbark” made me dream simply because Omakayas was doing it.

It’s been a year and I cannot remember the details of my dream, but it was a sorrowful one.

One line from “Silence” that I found especially memorable:

The long winter nights were for storytelling, and Nokomis was known as an excellent storyteller…. She told the holy stories and the funny stories, the aadizookaanag that explained how the world came into being, how it continued to be made.

That is just wonderful, the idea that creation was not something over and done with long ago, not a matter for long-ago myths that can be put away, but something real then and real today.

The third book is “The Porcupine Year,” set in 1852.

This one again is a little darker (spoilers ahead). The family is betrayed by one of their own, Albert LaPautre; and some of them are taken captive by the Dakota.

It was great, by the way, to realize that the Dakota Sioux were in the story, something I realized only after finishing the book; they are known in the text by another name, the Bwaana.

The Bwaana are are depicted both in conflict and in diplomacy with the Anishinabe, and for me this was something new.  My knowledge of Native American nations is not deep, and I’m mostly familiar with depictions of single tribes in isolation or in superficially depicted conflict with other tribes, as in “Dances With Wolves.”  There is a complex scene featuring representatives of different and hostile tribes conferring with one another in the “Last of the Mohicans” movie from 1992, but that was just one scene.  What we have in this book is a depiction of two peoples living beside one another for a long time, and their relationship is a complex one that evolves.

After these three books, the story jumps ahead to the late 1860s, to tell the story of Omakayas’ twin boys, Chickadee and Makoons (Erdrich pulls a Louisa May Alcott). The first of the two books set in this new time period is “Chickadee,” which has been my favorite of the series and which I’ll review in another post.

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