fiction favorites…The Birchbark House

The Birchbark House, written and illustrated by Louise Erdrich

She was named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop.  She grew into a nimble young girl of seven winters, a thoughtful girl with shining brown eyes and a wide grin, only missing her two top front teeth.  She touched her upper lip.  She still wasn’t used to those teeth gone, and was impatient for new, grown-up teeth to complete her smile.  Just like her namesake, Omakayas now stared long at the silky patch of bog before she gathered herself and jumped.  One hummock.  Safety.  Omakayas sprang wide again.  This time she landed on the very tip-top of a pointed old stump.  She balanced there, looking all around.  The lagoon water moved in sparkling crescents.  Thick swales of swamp grass rippled.  Mud turtles napped in the sun.  The world was so calm that Omakayas could hear herself blink.  Only the sweet call of a solitary white-throated sparrow pierced the cool of the woods beyond.
All of a sudden Grandma yelled.
“I found it!”
Startled, Omakayas slipped and spun her arms in wheels.  She teetered, but somehow kept her balance.  Two big, skipping hops, another leap, and she was on dry land.  She stepped over spongy leaves and moss, into the woods where the sparrows sang nesting songs in delicate relays.
“Where are you?” Nokomis yelled again.  “I found the tree!”
“I’m coming,” Omakayas called back to her grandmother.
It was spring, time to cut the birchbark.

Omakayas is a young Anishinabe (also known as Ojibwa or Chippewa) girl, living on an island in Lake Superior in the late 1800s, a time when as yet only a few intrepid, white  traders, trappers and missionaries had settled in these great forests.  She lives a fairly quiet life with her family, laced through with the natural world that surrounds them.  Each season brings its own tasks and lifestyle.  Summers they spend in a birchbark house, autumns bring a move to the ricing camp, winters they hunker down in a little log house at the edge of town.

This book narrates one full year, one cycle of seasons, in Omakayas’ life.  Constructing the new birchbark house with Grandma, cleaning hides for tanning, running errands to Old Tallow, the six-foot- tall, eccentric woman with her pack of ferocious dogs, tending to Baby Neewo, feasting, celebrating, enduring hunger and sorrow — all this and so much more fills Omakayas’ days.   It is a beautifully written story with a delightful main character, which actually reminded me of  a Native American version of  Little House in the Big Woods.

Tucked into this eloquent story, are a myriad fascinating descriptions of the old way of life among this forest-and-lake dwelling people — their homes and clothing and food, their skilled craftsmanship and natural remedies, their spirit worship and celebrations. Beyond this swirls a captivating plot revolving around the mystery of Omakayas’ birth.  Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa and relied on family history and further research in order to write this award-winning, authentic account of her people.  I can’t think of a better window on this particular region’s Native Americans than this book.

Included are Erdrich’s lovely pencil drawings, giving us a helpful glimpse of the people and world she has imagined-up for us, and a great glossary/pronunciation guide to Ojibwa terms used in the book.  Great story for a read-aloud from about age 7, or for sturdy readers who can cope with its foreign words and realistic sufferings on their own.

Here’s the Amazon link:   The Birchbark House