This has been my favorite of the “Birchbark House” series.
Jacob asked me while I was in the middle of it to read it to him, so we read the last half together.
The introduction of other tribes goes one step further in this book with the Metis people, who “are the sons and daughters of the French and Anishinabe and Cree all mixed together.” They are said to “mix all of the languages into one language.” This again was something new to me. I tended to think of North American native tribes as not mixing with whites, unlike in South America where mixing plainly took place on a large scale.
The language in this book is often exquisite.
There is nothing in any of the books thus far, quite like the mosquito cloud and attack.
No one dies in this book, but the story does not lack depth. This book left me reflecting on many things, flipping through its pages long after I’d reached the last page.
Here for example we have a reflection, in the mind of a young boy, about why his protector spirit once spoke to him in his own language, but only once:
Chickadee followed the stream for days. Sure enough, it widened. It passed through a small lake and he picked up its path on the other side. Always, when he made his night camp, he thanked the chickadee and sang the song it had taught him. Many times, as he walked, he heard the chickadee in the bushes. Sometimes the chickadee perched near him and sang its spring song or scolded in a friendly way, but always in the language of birds. Never again did the little bird speak in a voice that he could understand.
Perhaps it was because I was so weak and helpless, thought Chickadee. Perhaps my namesake then had pity on me, and the hawks also, though they needed my help.
That’s a resonant idea: that we are spoken to in languages that we can understand only when most in need, and are otherwise mostly left to listen more deeply.
There, in fact, is the idea of the miracle.
The plot of “Chickadee” revolves around a kidnapping, and that’s a common trope – but here it takes on extra resonance because in the Anishinable culture,
Twins were considered blessed. To know twins, to be in the family of twins or even the presence of twins, was good fortune. Chickadee and Makoons were much loved. To divide twins was an evil.
The kidnappers Batiste and Babiche – who seem to be Metis (?) – do convert rather quickly into good-natured bumblers, so quickly that it can border on the unbelievable. But it should be noted that even in their realistic/brutish early portrayal, they are already giggling bumblers: it’s just that they make themselves giggle, and they love only each other; later their hearts open to take in others. Erdrich is daring to portray a radical conversion, and maybe her portrayal is a bit sudden; but what she believes in is real. Change usually happens over time, but some changes are surprising conversions.
The way Batiste and Babiche are converted is doubly interesting. They are converted by a woman’s power; by the power and anger of Two Strike. They take full notice of power, the one thing they, as bullies, can be expected to respect and worship. And then they worship Two Strike as fervently as if they were slaves of a goddess, not for her external beauty, but for her power.
This is what Erdrich dares to portray: Babiche says,
Ah, my good brother and I had our hearts clarified. We met a great woman. A woman of many knives. A woman stronger than the two of us together. We both asked her to marry us!
The question of redeeming the brothers had already appeared during their early, brutish/realistic portrayal: Father Genin is said to suspect that they were “unredeemable.” Erdrich does not think so.
The reader knows in the final chapters that Chickadee is okay and that his family’s sickly worry is unnecessary. But there is an unexpected twist here, in the depiction of the family’s anguish. When Makoons cries out that he can hear Chickadee coming, his disbelieving family naturally takes anguish at what they believe to be his deluded hopes – but they are afraid of something specific here. The narrator tells us that Omakayas believes that Makoons might really be hearing something – the spirit of his dead brother, come to pull Makoons into the spirit world. That shows us, showed me, something new about what grieving might look like in this culture.
I did wonder the whole time, why Uncle Quill did not attempt at least to get a message back to Chickadee’s family, while he took him to St. Paul. Maybe there was no easy way to communicated with a native tribe across that distance? But the family was living in a town by then, Pembina. Mail was being delivered regularly to the town, which we know because Babiche and Batiste delivered a sack of mail there.
I can only conclude that Erdrich did it this way because she wanted the final reunion to feature a fear of Chickadee’s spirit; and she wanted the scenes of Chickadee’s encounter with the big city of St. Paul. That encounter is in some ways the most unforgettable heart of the novel. All the time you’re saying, “C’mon, Uncle Quill, you’re taking him farther south, get him back north to his family!” So it’s a little like when you’re reading “Huckleberry Finn,” and you see Huck and Jim raft their way south, past the point where they had planned to turn north into another river: all the time you’re saying, “C’mon, you’re going the wrong way! Stop! Don’t go further south!” But Twain needed Jim to go further south; he needed those scenes there, for what he wanted to say.
That’s the way it is with some great stories: you can find some inconsistencies or problems, but the author achieves the central purpose.
So yeah, possibly the best passages in the novel are those in which Chickadee struggles to understand new people and unfamiliar sights and sounds in St. Paul, but also earlier when he had encountered the whites’ school; and in his travels among the Metis, whose culture is a series of big questions for him.
Chickadee’s reflections about the world created by the whites in the big city are, for me, the signature passages of the book.
As Uncle Quill was bargaining, Chickadee slowly enjoyed his first taste of candy. But as he tasted it with every fiber of his being, he thought of Makoons and wished that his brother could be eating peppermint stick too. When he had licked and nibbled the stick exactly halfway down. Chickadee wrapped it in a stray piece of paper that a trader had dropped on the floor. Then he put the peppermint in the same pouch where he kept his striker. He would keep it for his brother. If only he could give it to Makoons right this minute!
Finally, the last decisions were made and the merchandise was piled near the cart. Chickadee and Uncle Quill secured everything with ropes and covered their precious cargo with the buffalo hides kept to protect the wares on the way back.
That night, as the oxcart train made camp near the outskirts of the city, Chickadee saw the flicker of candlelight and lamplight high on the hill where the great houses stood. He wondered if he would ever see the inside of one of those houses whose great windows blared sheaves of light. They made huge blurred spears that reached out into the balmy spring darkness. He heard voices up there, tinkly music and the clatter of hoofbeats as carriages and wagons rolled wooden planks and stone pathways. He thought of Makoons again. Could he ever convey this sight in words? He would have to memorize all that he was seeing so that he could tell his brother of what was there. Only his brother would understand, he thought, the black uneasiness that he also felt.
It seemed to Chickadee that those houses held the powers of the world. The ones who built and lived in those uses were making an outsize world. An existence he’d never dreamed of. Almost a spirit world, but one on earth. Chickadee could see that they used up forests of trees in making the houses. He could see that they had cut down every tree in sight. He could feel that they were pumping up the river and even using up the animals. He thought of the many animals whose dead hides were bound and sold in St. Paul in one day. Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied, thought Chickadee dizzily, until everything was gone.
Chickadee can sense the ravenous and dangerous appetite of this kind of world but like any child, he feels the wonder of it too. It’s a realistic blend of wonder and fear – and darkened by the reader’s historical knowledge of what is to come for his people.