The Birchbark House
|Series||"The Birchbark Series"|
|Followed by||The Game of Silence (2005)
The Porcupine Year (2008)
The Birchbark House is a 1999 indigenous juvenile fiction novel by Louise Erdrich, and is the first book in a four book series known as The Birchbark series. The story follows the life of Omakayas and her Ojibwa community beginning in 1847 near present day Lake Superior. The Birchbark House has received rave reviews and was a 1999 National Book Award Finalist for young people’s fiction.
The prologue depicts a group of Ojibwa fur traders finding the sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on an island, a baby girl. One of the men decides to tell his wife, because he knows she will come back to save the child.
After the prologue the novel continues through the eyes of a seven winters old young girl, Omakayas (whose name means "little frog"). The circular motion of the Ojibwa culture is represented through the motions of the four seasons, Neebin (summer), Dagwaging (fall). Biboon (winter), and Zeegwun (spring). Within each season the community works together to hunt, build, gather, and survive. Throughout the trials of surviving the winter and a smallpox epidemic, Omakayas cares for her family, learns about her connection to land, animals, and nature, and discovers her gift of dreams. The most important thing she learns about herself is why she didn’t get smallpox when most everyone in the community did. Unfortunately Neewo died. She discovers she is the baby that survived the epidemic on the island and that although her parents raised her as their own, she was adopted by them. Omakayas sees this as a blessing because she was able to care for her family to help them survive the disease.
The novel includes decorative pencil drawings, as a map of the Ojibwa community, and a glossary of Ojibwa language translations.
As one of the central themes of Erdrich’s novel is community there are many characters in The Birchbark House. The following are the characters most of the novel is centered on. Omakayas (Little Frog) – is the voice of the novel. Readers follow the thoughts, feelings, and actions of a seven-year-old child. She learns a lot about herself throughout the novel including her gift of dreams. She also discovers her connection with animals and nature, and begins to work with her grandma to become a medicine woman.
Omakayas- The main character of the story 'The Birchbark House' and she is usually very calm and not scared easily. She is gentle, friendly girl, only if somebody else is friendly to her. She seems very active, but inside her heart, she is hiding her painful mind.
Nokomis – The grandmother of Omakayas, her mother’s mother. She lives with Omakayas and her family. Nature and the natural medicine it provides is something she is good with. She lends her knowledge of the land to Omakayas through mentoring her as well as through her magnificent storytelling.
Yellow Kettle – Omakayas’ mother is a strong woman that often does not display her anger, but at times her anger pours out. She is the one who keeps the family structure intact while Deydey is traveling. In one picture Deydey’s worn and used moccasins are being cradled by Yellow Kettle’s moccasins, supporting the role of the woman in the family as supportive and caring.
Deydey – Omakayas’ father is mixed race, half white and half Ojibwa, and a trader. He is gone trading during some of the novel, but his strong personality mixed with tenderness and care is present.
Neewo - Omakayas' baby brother that Omakayas loves very much. She often pretend that Neewo is her own baby. Neewo prefers Omakayas more than his other siblings.
Pinch – Omakayas’ younger brother that Omakayas loves, but as a sibling relationship she sees the flaws in his character, such as his laziness. However, Pinch can also be seen as a trickster character with the use of his wits to get out of tasks.
Angeline – Omakayas’ sister that Omakayas loves and sees as a role model. She is known in the community for her beauty and her excellent skills in beading.
Fishtail – Friend of the family and his wife, Angeline’s best friend, dies in the smallpox epidemic. He also is one of the members in the community who is learning to read the tracks of the whites. In other words he is attempting to learn the English alphabet to better aid communication and treaty negotiations with the whites.
Old Tallow – Woman of great authority in the community. Omakayas understands she is one of the only children Old Tallow respects. When the family and community are suffering through the smallpox epidemic she steps up to help the community survive the rough winter. Also she has a love for her dogs as much as her community, but is able to punish the dogs when they behave poorly.
Andeg – Omakayas’ pet crow that she discovers as injured and nurtures back to health. Andeg provides much of the humor throughout the novel. Through Andeg readers have a sense of the connection Omakayas has with animals.
Culture- The Birchbark House provides a lot of information Ojibwe cultural practices, as seen in the description of Omakayas working, stretching, and cleaning a buffalo hide: She struggles with the task at first, but uses her emotions to help her continue the work and ends up with one of the best hides she has ever worked with. Through the rest of the novel this very special hide is used to make things, like moccasins.
Language- Language is a second prevalent theme within this novel. The language is either conveyed through direct translation or inserted within a sentence. An example of this is the storytelling. Nokomis and Deydey are two of the characters who tell stories. According to Sabra McIntosh, “They pass on family history, folklore, superstitions and customs. Nokomis tells stories in the cold of winter. Deydey tells stories whenever he is home usually about his travels. The family and especially the children relish story telling time. We know from the author’s notes that Ojibwa was a spoken, not written, language. Their history and identity survives through such story telling.”
- "2009 National Book Awards Winners and Finalists, The National Book Foundation". Nationalbook.org. Retrieved 2013-08-17.
- Erdrich, Louise. The Birchbark House, 1999.
- "Birchbark House". Faculty.salisbury.edu. Retrieved 2013-08-17.