The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

I don't remember not having read this book. According to my parents I read it when I was seven or eight (or rather, they read it to me), but I can't recall reading it for the first time, or before I knew the story of The Birchbark House.

The book follows a young Ojibwa girl named Omakayas (Oh-MAH-kay-ahs), who lives with her family and tribe on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, which is is present-day Wisconsin. Omakayas is seven winters old at the beginning of the book, and we follow her and her tribe over the course of one year.

The author's wry humor and vivid imagery is not obvious, but slipped in with such subtlety that you won't notice anything but how engaging the book is.

The Birchbark House is not for readers who prefer suspenseful books: The story is taken at a pace leisurely enough to enjoy and relax into, becoming friends with the characters and their home through the book. The plot is not page-turning because of a frantic "What will happen next?" but rather a genuinely interested one. It's a story that will quietly absorb you, making you forget that you're not watching berries dry with Omakayas's brother Little Pinch, or helping to build the family's summer home out of birchbark.

While a major part of the story is centered around the smallpox epidemic that kills many of Omakayas's friends and family, The Birchbark House is a quiet book that I'd recommend for ages 7 and up. Readers may have trouble with the pronunciation of the Ojibwa words, so it's good to use as a read-aloud book.

Things I like about this book:

There are four parts to the book, dedicated to the four seasons: Neebin (summer), Dagwaging (fall), Biboon (winter), and Zeegwun (spring). The feeling of the story is circular, and the nature-oriented details add to this sensation.

The black-and-white pencil illustrations in my edition match the author's descriptions of characters and places perfectly.

There are several Ojibwa stories told in the characters' voices: While they're not essential to the plot and may not interest impatient readers, they give insight into the deeply spiritual culture of Omakayas and her family.

The casual dialogue: The characters' speech reads naturally, and matches their individual personalities. There are many Ojibwa words unfamiliar to most readers, but they can be understood through context (or the included glossary, if you're willing to interrupt the superb story).

There are two sequels to date, The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year. Both are as excellent as the first book, though slightly darker, as Omakayas's tribe is forced off their ancient lands by the chimookoman, or white people. Recommended for ages 10 and up.





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