Now this is a book I picked up for one reason: my son was studying the Native Americans this year in our homeschool. I had never read this book, but I thought it would be a good way to get a deeper feel for the life of Obijwe. As I was reading, it reminded me of the Little House books: a character who’s always getting in trouble, a warm family life, and stories told by parents or relatives interspersed throughout the narrative. I read it aloud to both my kids, and this will be one we won’t long forget.
You have to smile as a parent when you hear your son saying “Gaygo” (stop it in the Ojibwa language) after reading this book.
The synopsis (from Amazon):
Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich's first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior's Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island.
What to love about The Birchbark House:
1. An imperfect character. I think this what we all love about Laura: she gets in trouble; she gets jealous; she gets in a bad mood. So does Omakayas. And that is why she is so easy to relate to. All of us have felt that way, either now or as a child. I think that’s why my boys also liked her.
2. A strong family and community. Although Omakayas gets jealous of her older sister and annoyed by her younger brother, you see the deep love the family has for each other and the strong ties of the community.
3. Detailed depiction of everyday life. Another reason we read the Little House books is to learn about the past: churning butter, butchering pigs, building a log cabin from scratch. Birchbark House has these same details about Obijwe life: tanning hide, scaring crows away from corn, healing the sick.
4. Folklore and family stories woven in throughout. Like in the Little House books where one of Pa’s stories becomes a story in itself, Omakayas’s grandmother and others often tell stories, most of them semi-magical, about things that happened. My kids liked debating whether they were true or not. They added a lot of richness.
5. A realistic portrayal of Obijiwe life. What I enjoyed about this book is that it didn’t make the Obijwe into perfect people. It showed the hardships of things like small pox (brought by the white man) and the prejudices on both sides. In this way, even though it’s from the Native American point of view, I thought it depicted a more well-rounded view of Native-white relationships than you see in the Little House books.
The MG Meter (my sons' take): Good, but a little sad.
What do you think makes a character memorable?
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To check out more Marvelous Middle Grade suggestions, check out Shannon Messenger's blog.