In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Monday, April 1, 2013

Birchbark House

Dear Annie,

Your Little House reading sounds wonderful.  The books never really took off in our family -- possibly because we attempted them too close to Lizzie's Lord of the Rings obsession.  They still have a loyal following these days, selling steadily.

When you're finished with them, I recommend checking out  Louise Erdrich's
Birchbark House
series.  It's sometimes referred to as the Native American response to the Little House books.  The first book is set in an Ojibwa tribe on an island in Lake Superior in 1847.  Erdrich herself is part Ojibwa and thoroughly researched the life of the tribe of 150 years ago.  Most of the book focuses on seven year-old Omakayas, an intense and energetic girl.  We follow the tribe through a year, learning about building birchbark houses, tanning hides, sewing clothing, making canoes, and lots more.  It has that same fine attention to detail of the Little House series.  The characters and the family relationships are beautifully written and drawn -- Erdrich sketched the illustrations too. 

The encroaching white culture is an element in the book, but not the dominant one.  Both traders and missionaries coexist with the natives.  They bring smallpox: the story starts with an epidemic which kills all but one person -- a baby -- in one village.  Seven years later another wave of disease strikes -- and Omakayas discovers her own origins while she helps nurse her family through.  In later books, the family moves off the island, and keeps moving.  The fourth book,
came out just last year.  Its main characters are Omakayas' twin sons, one of whom is kidnapped (and later rescued).  Each of the books works well as a stand-alone -- but Birchbark House is really worth reading first.  

Erdrich, who owns an independent bookstore (yay!) in Minneapolis called Birchbark Books, is planning more in the series: she says she wants to follow 100 years of Omakayas' life, bringing us up to 1940.  I look forward to them.



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