Monday, August 27, 2007

Review: The Game of Silence

by Louise Erdirich. HarperCollins, 2005. This is the sequel to The Birchbark House, which I reviewed last week. I really like these books. The Game of Silence takes up where Birchbark House left off, with the main character Omakayas living with her Ojibwa family on an island in Lake Superior. The year is 1849, Omakayas is nine years old, and the Ojibwa have been told by the American Government that they must prepare to move to a reservation to the west in Dakota territory. The Dakota are their long-time enemies.

In the opening chapter a refugee band of Ojibwa come to shore to be greeted by Omakayas. They had moved west and failed in their attempt to find a place among the Dakota. Omakayas' family and friends take them in and absorb them into their community. Their ragged, poor state is an ominous warning to what the rest of the Ojibwa face in the near future. The problem of what the band will do to secure their future forms the central tension of the story.

Erdirch beautifully describes the people's way of life. They build canoes from cedar wood and birch bark. They harvest rice, grow lush gardens, and hunt. Omakayas learns to cure hide and make clothing and tools. Her grandmother is teaching her to be a healer because she shows a gift for it. The gentle and loving way children are taught responsibility, hard work and respect for elders is woven into the story. In several places in the book one member of the band is separated from the rest of the family, lost in life-threatening weather. Omakayas' little brother is left at the rice harvest island in a terrible thunderstorm, her father is stranded on an ice flow when the winter ice pack breaks up while he is on a scouting mission, and a friend of the family is caught out in terribly freezing weather in a sudden severe winter storm. In each case the people pull together and go out to search for the lost one, bringing him or her home at great personal risk. The strength of the community shows in these instances, as well as the difficulty of their way of life. All these elements come together in a book balanced with humor and beauty.

This is a lovely book to share with children in grades four through six. The troubling conflict the Ojibwa face as the white settlers push them out of their homes and land should fuel challenging conversations. Anyone studying American history, westward expansion or Native Americans ought to read these books.

Erdrich has also written many novels for adults and books of poetry. I highly recommend you look for her work.

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