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Reviews of Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House series

The Birchbark HouseThe Birchbark House
by Louise Erdrich ; illus. by the author
Intermediate     Hyperion     235 pp.
5/99     0-7868-0300-2      $14.99     g
Library edition ISBN 0-7868-2241-4      $15.49

With a title and structure that inescapably recall Laura Ingalls Wilder’s family stories, Louise Erdrich here paints a detailed portrait of Ojibwa life in the mid-nineteenth century. Seven-year-old Omakayas lives happily with her extended Ojibwa family on the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker on Lake Superior. Although the reader knows her as “the girl from spirit island” who alone escaped the smallpox that decimated her people when she was a baby, Omakayas grows up without knowledge of her past. Erdrich traces a full season in the life of Omakayas, in which her adopted family succumbs to smallpox but the young girl lives to nurture everyone except her beloved baby brother back to health. It is also a season in which Omakayas learns her true heritage from the crusty and courageous Tallow, who saved her as a child that she might grow to save others, and complete a circle earlier begun. Although Omakayas’s people experience extraordinary hardship as they move with the seasons in search of food and shelter, they also find much joy in play. The antics of Andeg, Omakayas’s pet crow who can say “gaygo” (“stop it”) to her irksome brother Pinch, and the mischief of two reappearing bear cubs prevent this sometimes-sentimental story from lapsing into the over-reverential. 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. Her gentle spot art throughout complements the sweetness, sadness, and humor of this first of several projected stories that will “attempt to retrace [her] own family’s history” and thereby redress the imbalances of a literature that erases or distorts the Native American’s place in our country’s past. SUSAN P. BLOOM

From the May/June 1999 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

erdrich_game of silence_300x199star2 The Game of Silence
by Louise Erdrich; illus. by the author
Intermediate    HarperCollins     258 pp.
5/05     ISBN 0-06-029789-1     $15.99
Library edition ISBN 0-06-029790-5     $16.89
Harper Children’s Audio edition ISBN 0-06-075839-2     $27.95

Nine-year-old Omakayas; her pet crow, Andeg; and the rest of her family have returned to their summer home, but things are changing. In this sequel to The Birchbark House (rev. 5/99), Erdrich deftly revisits the events of the previous book, including the devastating death of Omakayas’s baby brother, Neewo, in the smallpox outbreak that took so many villagers’ lives. And now a new threat has come: another group of Ojibwe, starving and barely alive, arrive with news of the encroaching chimookomanag — white people. A removal order from the U.S. president means that the Ojibwe will have to move west, away from the land they love. While a small advance party sets off to gather information, the villagers adjust to the newcomers and prepare for the future. Using some of the conventions from the first installment, Erdrich brings her characters through the seasons, starting in summer. Omakayas is maturing with each passing month, and her grandmother, who has always taken a special interest in her granddaughter’s gifts, gently pushes Omakayas toward adulthood. On one tense night, when she has a powerful dream that saves her father’s life, Omakayas finally starts to understand her destiny and her gifts. Erdrich’s own gifts are many, and here she has given readers another tale full of rich details of 1850s Ojibwe life, complicated supporting characters, and all the joys and challenges of a girl becoming a woman. ROBIN SMITH

From the July/August 2005 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

Porcupine YearThe Porcupine Year
by Louise Erdrich; illus. by the author
Intermediate, Middle School     HarperCollins     193 pp.
9/08     ISBN 978-0-06-029787-9     $15.99
Library edition ISBN 978-0-06-029788-6     $16.89

This third book (The Birchbark House, rev. 5/99; The Game of Silence, rev. 7/05) about Omakayas starts off excitingly, with the Ojibwe girl and her young brother Pinch swept down the rapids and eventually finding their way back to the family campsite for a Tom Sawyer–like reappearance from the dead. Although animated by the presence of a baby porcupine that Pinch adopts, the book becomes a bit static, slowed by details of “packs of furs and bark packs of manoomin, bags of weyass, dried meat, or pemmican, pots, tanned skins, and bundles of their blankets.” The narrative regains strength when a renegade uncle robs the family, leaving them close to starvation as winter closes in. They are saved, but not without a considerable sacrifice that will haunt the followers of Omakayas’s journey thus far. ROGER SUTTON

From the November/December 2008 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

ChickadeeChickadee [Birchbark House]
by Louise Erdrich; illus. by the author
Intermediate     Harper/HarperCollins     196 pp.
9/12     978-0-06-057790-2     $15.99
Library ed. 978-0-06-057791-9     $16.89     g
e-book ed. 978-0-06-219007-9     $8.99

If the Birchbark House series is the Native American counterpart to Wilder’s Little House, this fourth installment might be considered Erdrich’s Little Town on the Prairie (rev. 1/42). Set a generation after the first three books, Chickadee centers on the now-adult Omakayas’s eight-year-old twin sons, Chickadee and Makoons. When Chickadee is abducted from the Ojibwe camp in the deep woods, it not only initiates a string of gripping adventures for the boy but also signals the beginning of a change to his family’s way of life: in searching for him they establish themselves in a village on the Great Plains, abandoning the great northern forests and their traditional nomadic existence. Readers will absorb the history lesson almost by osmosis; their full attention will be riveted on the story, whether it’s Chickadee escaping his (ultimately buffoonish) captors or riding with his uncle Quill in an oxcart train bound for Saint Paul or surviving a vicious mosquito attack (“millions and millions of mosquitoes landed on the flesh of every living being in the oxcart train”) or calmly picking baby snakes off the sleeping, phobic Quill. Every detail anticipates readers’ interest. Chickadee himself is a most sympathetic character — small in stature but big in heart, like his namesake; and though it’s mostly his story, interspersed scenes depicting the left-behind Makoons’s grief make the brothers’ reunion at the end all the sweeter. A map, historical prologue, and glossary of Ojibwe terms are appended. MARTHA V. PARRAVANO

From the September/October 2012 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

erdrich_makoonsstar2 Makoons [Birchbark House]
by Louise Erdrich; illus. by the author
Intermediate    Harper/HarperCollins    166 pp.
8/16    978-0-06-057793-3    $16.99
Library ed.  978-0-06-057794-0    $17.89    g
e-book ed.  978-0-06-239540-5    $10.99

This fifth title in the Birchbark House series, a direct sequel to Chickadee (rev. 9/12), opens with Makoons, a young Ojibwe boy, telling a vision of his family’s future, concluding sadly, “I know we will have to save them. Only…we cannot save them all.” Then we are dropped into the warm, nurturing, and productive world of his multigenerational family, now making a new life on the Great Plains. Makoons and his twin Chickadee are both recovering from the events of the previous book: Makoons from his serious illness; Chickadee from his kidnapping ordeal. The two are constantly on the move, developing their horse-riding skills with mixed success, participating in buffalo hunts, and just plain getting in trouble. Warm intergenerational moments abound (for instance, an adult prank calling out the boys’ attempt to shirk the onerous task of tanning hides). As in the earlier Birchbark House books, Erdrich provides fascinating information about Ojibwe daily life, here especially details about buffalo hunting. Throughout, there are poignant moments, including the deaths of several family members and a sense of foreboding about the future as the buffalo begin to disappear. Whether encountering this community for the first time or returning to it, readers will be enriched by Erdrich’s finely crafted corrective to the Eurocentric dominant narrative of America’s past. Soft black-and-white drawings are scattered throughout, with back matter consisting of an author’s note on the Ojibwe language and a glossary and pronunciation guide (not seen). MONICA EDINGER

From the May/June 2016 issue of The Horn Book Magazine.

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