The Birchbark House
Louise Erdrich (Juvenile Fiction)
“She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.”
Omakayas is seven years old and lives on an island in Lake Superior with her family. They are Native American and belong to the Ojibwa tribe. It is the summer of 1847 and everyone is busy preparing for fall. Once their birchbark house is built, there are skins to soften and tan, berries to gather, and the corn patch to tend. The family works together to ensure their survival from season to season, but all Omakayas is focused on is avoiding her pesky little brother, thinking of ways to be more like her big sister, and watching her father worry about the ever-increasing encroachment of the “chimookoman”, the white people. Still, life is good for Omakayas and her family until that one winter night when a stranger enters their community and makes Omakayas reevaluate everything that she once thought important.
The Birchbark House is reminiscent of The Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder, only Erdrich tells her story from the Native American point of view. We follow Omakayas and her family through one full year and learn how they gather and preserve their food, construct their lodgings, deal with the harshness and dangers of their environment, treat their sick and wounded, and struggle for survival. Any fan of our spirited prairie heroine, Laura Ingalls, will appreciate this new perspective on the same issues that we all encounter: love, loss, family, friendship, and finding your place in a very big world.
There is an Ojibwa proverb that says, “Sometimes I go about pitying myself and all the while I am being carried across the sky by beautiful clouds.” There is point in the story where Omakayas is thrown into a very deep and dark place that tests both her strength and faith. But in time, she realizes all the gifts that life has yet to offer and that is just enough to allow her to rise above her sorrow and look up to the sky—into the clouds—for hope.
*Reviewer’s note: The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books by Louise Erdrich that follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community.
* Book cover image attributed to www.amazon.com