by Louise Erdrich. Hyperion, 1999. I really enjoyed this novel of a young Ojibwa girl living on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. The story leads us through the four seasons, starting with early summer as Omakayas, a seven year old girl, searches with her grandmother for birch bark to build their summer house. Simple, eloquent descriptions of their way of living are woven into the story, including how they build their house, grow, gather, hunt and cook food, make and decorate clothing, celebrate and honor spiritual practices and pass on storytelling traditions. This will make a wonderful read-aloud for any classroom between third and seventh grades. A glossary in the back of the book gives meanings and pronunciation for the many Ojibwa words and phrases scattered through the text. If you are studying Westward Expansion, pioneers, or Native American cultures this book should be part of the program. It is a nice contrast to books such as Little House on the Prairie, The Cabin Faced West and the like. I particularly thought of Laura Ingalls books when Erdrich was describing maple sugaring, raising corn and building houses. In the spring, when we go to maple sugar festivals and read the Little House in the Big Woods account of their sugaring festival, I want to read this section in Birchbark House to my boys. Omakayas and her family make maple sugar candy in the snow exactly the same way Laura Ingalls describes her family making it.
Erdrich is of mixed ancestry, with an Ojibwa mother and German-American father. She grew up in Minnesota, in the same area that this story takes place. In researching for the book she joined her mother and her sister in tracing family history. She found ancestors on both sides who lived on the island she wrote about. The name Omakayas was listed in the census. In the acknowledgments she talks about the spelling and pronunciation of the main character's name (oh-MAH-kay-ahs) and says "Dear reader, when you speak this name out loud you will be honoring the life of an Ojibwa girl who lived a long time ago." It is good to read a beautifully written story of Ojibwa life that is authentic and based on the lives of real people.
Although Omakayas is only seven years old the story has depth and complexity that will give older students plenty to ponder and discuss. The opening chapter begins, "The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl." Men on a fur trading mission come by in their canoes, but they are afraid to land and investigate or rescue the infant girl because it is clear that all the other people have died from small pox. One man thinks he will tell his wife about her, because his wife is braver than he and will want to come and get the little girl. That is all we know of this part of the story until the very end of the book. The second chapter starts to tell us about seven year old Omakayas and her family. In the last few pages of the book Omakayas is told by Old Tallow, a rough, independent, grandmotherly friend of the family, that she is that little girl rescued from the island, the only survivor of her birth family. Old Tallow is the wife of the trader in the canoe, who went back to claim the girl and then threw her cowardly husband out in disgust. She nursed the tiny girl back to life and brought her to her friends Yellow Kettle and her husband and family to adopt and raise, because she felt unable to do it herself. Hearing this story at the age of eight brings back memories to Omakayas, and she realizes that she has always held the memory of the birds singing on that first island. She says the bird's song kept her alive.
Old Tallow has waited to tell Omakayas her history until after the girl has met her spirit guide and begun to understand her life's calling. Her family has just recently survived a small pox outbreak. Her baby brother died the winter before from small pox, and Omakayas is still mourning his loss. Old Tallow tells her that the reason she was able to nurse her family back to health without getting ill herself is that she is already a survivor. Giving her the story of her own early life allows her to find her strength and peace.
Erdrich is a mother of five children herself, two of whom are adopted. She speaks about the difficulties and the richness of being a writing mother in a Salon interview from 1999. I am inspired by her words and by her extensive body of work. Next on my reading list is another children's novel about Omakayas, The Game of Silence. I have another of her novels for adults and I am going to look for her poetry books. I encourage you to do the same. She is a writer to follow.