Monday, July 12, 2010

Review: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Author: Louise Erdrich
Title: The Birchbark House
Illustrator: Louise Erdrich
Publisher: Hyperion Books for Children
Publication Date: 1999
ISBN: 0-7868-2241-4

Omakayas and her family live on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker, or Moningwanaykaning. The cycle of the seasons rules their life: where they live, what they eat, the type of house that shelters them, the clothes they wear. This is all Omakayas knows. But one winter, the rhythm of life changes. A stranger, a chimookoman (white man) comes to visit, bringing with him an enemy they cannot fight...smallpox. One by one, Omakayas’s family is stricken, until it is up to her to save them. Those who survive are changed forever.

Set in 1847 on an island in Lake Superior, The Birchbark House is based on the traditional life of the Ojibwa. The author, Louise Erdrich, was born in Minnesota to a German-American father and a French-Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) mother. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation. Her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and her grandfather was a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. As Erdrich states in the acknowledgment, “This book and those that will follow are an attempt to retrace my own family’s history.... All mistakes are mine.” This background served Louise Erdrich well when writing The Birchbark House, giving her an insider’s viewpoint which allows her to include details that an outsider would not think to include.

“Omakayas’s family was Anishinabeg.” Aninishinbeg is the original name for the Ojibwa or Chippewa people, the same tribe that Erdrich is descended from. Throughout the book, the language of the Anishinabeg is used within the text of the story. “Stop it, Pinch! Gaygo, Pinch! Stop it!” “They must have said it more times as they traveled the lake than there were waves or fish alongside of them!” Terms are often defined in English after being introduced, but each term is rarely redefined after the initial introduction. A glossary is available at the end of the book to assist the reader. An author’s note on the Ojibwa language precedes the glossary. “Ojibwa was originally a spoken, not written, language, and for that reason spellings are often idiosyncratic. There are also many, many dialects of Ojibwa in use.” This statement is followed by an apology for any mistakes and the sources that were used for the Ojibwa terms and their meanings.

The setting, customs, dress, food, and shelter all emerge in detail as Omakayas and her family live their lives through the seasons of a year. The book is divided into four sections, each one based on the season for which it is named: Neebin (Summer), Dagwaging (Fall), Biboon (Winter), and Zeegwun (Spring). After tobacco was offered to the birch tree in thanks for its skin, the making of the birchbark house is described in detail as Omakayas helps her grandmother, Nokomis, peel the birchbark from the tree in the summer. Oral storytelling is one of the customs that is woven into Omakayas’s life, as it is found in the fabric of life for many Native Americans. The father, Deydey, and the grandmother, Nokomis, both tell stories to the family, sometimes for entertainment only as in Deydey’s ghost story, sometimes for a life lesson, as in the story of how the earth began, “Nanabosho and Muskrat Make an Earth”.

Illustrations done by Erdrich add to the story. Each individual can be identified through unique features, mannerisms, and dress. Old Tallow has legs like poles, smokes a pipe, and wears threadbare makazins, a dress with the teeth of a fox at the collar and a scraggly, ripped hem, and her braids tucked into a broad-brimmed hat with a little feather from the gold-breasted woodpecker in the band. I only saw one inconsistency within the illustrations. Omakayas’s clothing changed from the scene on page 30 when she meets the Mama bear and the following scene on page 36 after she ran home and started scraping the moose hide to prepare the skin for use. Separately, the clothing in each illustration appears to be authentic, but back-to-back, the unexpected change caught my eye. Other than that, the details provided by the black and white illustrations added to the life and the characters described within the text.

As the seasons passed and life’s events both big and small were encountered, each of the characters evolved. Omakayas discovered healing. “It felt very good to her to heal another human, even if that human was Pinch.” Even Pinch matured as he faced death and survived. “In the old days, Pinch would have teased her and made her feel bad because her bird preferred him. Something had changed,” thought Omakayas after Pinch had helped her get her bird to come back to them. Rich in character development with a well-developed plot, descriptive language, authentic details, and a setting that is woven into the lives of the characters, The Birchbark House leaves me wanting to read more.

Review excerpts:
Publishers Weekly
(5/31/99) “Into her lyrical narrative, Erdrich weaves numerous Ojibwa words, effectively placing them in context to convey their meanings. Readers will want to follow this family for many seasons to come.” (Ages 9-up)

School Library Journal (5/01/99) “While this title will not appeal to fans of fast-paced action, readers who enjoy a variety of deftly drawn characters, relationships that ring true, and fascinating details about the daily life of the Ojibwa will be attracted to this endearing and irrepressible girl.” (Gr. 4-6)

Kirkus Reviews (1999) “With this volume, Erdrich launches her cycle of novels about a 19th-century Ojibwa family, covering in vivid detail their everyday life as they move through the seasons of one year on an island on Lake Superior.... a novel that is by turns charming, suspenseful, and funny, and always bursting with life.” (10-14)

Book Links (July 1, 2004) “Her attention to historical detail perfectly balances the compelling story.” (Gr. 3-6)

New York Times Book Review (7/18/99) “By the book's conclusion, Omakayas's growth into the role of healer seems both realistic and deeply spiritual. As her depression lifts, spring arrives, with ''the sweetness of the maple . . . the warmth of the sun,'' and there is an earned and satisfying sense of completeness.” (Ages 9-11)

Horn Book Magazine (May/June 99) “Along with painstaking descriptions of household tasks and customs, Erdrich crafts images of tender beauty (Omakayas's father's moccasins, "soft and open… seemed relieved to flop inside the door and nestle into the safe embrace of Mama's pair") while weaving Ojibwa words seamlessly into the text.” (Intermediate)

WILLA (Women Writing the West) Literary Award 2000
Dorothy Canfield Fisher Children’s Book Award 2000-2001
Wordcraft Circle Writer of the Year Award 2000
National Book Award finalist 1999
American Indian Youth Literature Award Winner 2006
National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) “Picturing America” Bookshelf Award 2009
Jefferson Cup Award Honor Book
National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum Western Heritage Award 2000
Jane Addams Honor Award 2000

Read The Birchbark House, and its companion books, The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year while studying the Ojibwe/Chippewa culture and traditions. Check the authenticity of the information in the historical fiction books by Louise Erdrich. This activity will instill in children the knowledge that not all information provided in literature or nonfiction books is true. Care must be taken in verifying any information that does not match.

Information can be obtained through nonfiction children’s books, such as The Ojibwa Indians by Bill Lund (1999) which “provides an overview of the past and present lives of the Ojibwa people, covering their daily life, customs, relations with the government and more” or The Ojibwa by Michelle Lomberg (2004) which “examines the history of the Ojibwa people, and looks at aspects of their traditional ways of life, including homes, communities, clothing, food, tools, weapons, defense, religion and beliefs, ceremonies and celebrations, music and dance, language and storytelling, and art.” Combine these resources with some websites such as Native American Facts for Kids ( ) put together by Orrin Lewis, a Cherokee, as he develops his project which provides information about all the Amerindian languages or, for history and current information, including politics, Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe (


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