The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich.
Disney Hyperion, New York, 1999, my edition 2002.
Historical fiction, 244 pages including glossary.
National Book Award Finalist
Lexile: 970L .
AR Level: 6.1 (worth 7.0 points) .
NOTES: This is a work of fiction although I am not reviewing it on Fiction Friday.
While the main character is seven, I would recommend this book for older children.
This is one year in the life of seven-year-old Omakayas (Oh-MAH-kay-ahs), an Ojibwa (Anishinabe) girl, in 1847.
Wow. From the suspenseful prologue to the last word, I was fully immersed in this book. The best historical fiction I’ve read in a long time, I might even like it better than Abby Takes a Stand. To think I didn’t really want to read it that much!
I’d seen this book recommended so many times, but was avoiding it because I was required to read one of Erdrich’s books in college and did not like it. That book was The Antelope Wife. I found it unreadable – one of very few required novels I didn’t read cover to cover. My professor was trying to be modern and avant-garde but the book was incomprehensible and had no plot, just intricate emotionally-laden descriptions that initially intrigued and later bored me. I’m so glad to see that Erdrich has rewritten that book and the new edition is supposed to be much more readable, because in this book, I absolutely loved her take on historical fiction.
The story is broken up according to the seasons, starting with Summer or Neebin. Each portion has one large illustration for the season and several more within each chapter. There are three or four chapters for each season. Some of the chapters read more like connected short stories in that they have their own arc, but there is a larger overall narrative of Omakayas maturing, growing in spiritual depth, and her family and tribe moving through the seasons and interacting.
There are points where this is a gentle, quiet book, but don’t let that fool you, because it packs a punch. Events occur realistically, and that means scary and difficult things happen sometimes. The first part of the book is fairly heavy on descriptions, as we meet and get to know the various people and places in Omakayas’ life.
Throughout the book there are small illustrations by the author. They are pretty good but not great. You can tell that Erdrich is primarily an artist with words, but it’s also clear she put a great deal of time and effort into these drawings. While the technical skill might be less, the historical accuracy is likely much greater than she would have found had her publisher matched her with a random artist. I’d love to see Julie Flett or another artist try.
Potential Spoilers/Triggers One portion of this gave me pause. Until the smallpox, I was ready to use it as a read-aloud with my first and second graders. After, I though maybe I could read it to third grade. But then an adult character attempts suicide. Don’t get me wrong, I still think this book should be in every school library and I still plan to read it aloud. However, be cautious about introducing this book to a group setting where you might not know the triggers or students might be too young to understand. End of spoilers
It would be possible to read the book aloud and alter that portion of the book (page 154 in my edition). Leaving the paragraph out entirely wouldn’t make sense later on, but the most detailed sentences could be glossed over to made the book more accessible to much younger children or avoid triggering a student whose history you might not be aware of.
That said, I think this should be mandatory reading either in 4th grade during the Wisconsin history unit OR in middle school during the study of American history and the colonization of America. The reading level is a little high (I’m guessing because of all the non-English words) but in a group read setting that could be addressed and teachers could work with individual students (sending home a letter to parents first to warn them of triggers).
More spoilers The book opens with a girl abandoned on an island because all her relatives have died of smallpox. She is rescued and then lives with a new family, who fully accept her as a relative and it is never mentioned to the point where she actually doesn’t know that she isn’t their biological child. But her past comes back to play in a big way much later (after I myself had forgotten she was adopted). End of spoilers
Aside from the potential triggers, I was surprised how much I loved this book. Every author has missteps occasionally, and from the reviews I’ve been reading, it sounds like I hit Erdrich’s worst novel with The Antelope Wife. Finally I understand Nazahet’s lifetime goal of reading all of her novels, and just might have to join in (we’ll see how the next few go).