Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

I was reading Pioneer Girl Perspectives this summer and read about The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich.  It was described as a Native American “Little House on the Prairie.”  I knew I had to read it!

Although the Little House books write the story that the Ingalls family moved onto vacant land, the land was all but vacant.  The Birchbark House tells the story of the people who lived on the land before the whites moved into the territory.  Omakayas is a young Ojibwa girl who lives on the island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker in Lake Superior.  This book goes through a year of her life as her family builds a new Birchbark house in the summer, harvest rice in the fall, and moves into a cedar log cabin in the winter.  This year the family faces adversity when voyageurs bring deadly smallpox to the village.  Will the family survive?  What is the secret of Omakayas?  And will her brother, Pinch, ever become less annoying?

I liked that there were several call backs to Little House, in particular descriptions on how chores were done at the time, stories that elders tell, and good pictures.  I really loved the character of Omakayas.  I loved her difficulties with her siblings, but also how she communed with animals and had the gifts of a healer.  I loved her journey throughout the novel.  I especially was fond of her pet crow, Andeg.  What a cool pet!

The illustrations were not as good as the epic Garth Williams’ illustrations of the Little House series.  This book also pales in comparison to Little House in its descriptions.  I thought about it and I think it was because Wilder was explaining things that she had actually experienced, while Erdrich is writing historical fiction about a time period that she did not live through.

What The Birchbark House did do better was to portray life in the pioneer days as it really would have been, not as a fairy tale where no one ever dies as in Wilder’s Little House books.  Omakayas faces real threats and death in this novel and it is hard for her to work through on a personal level. I appreciated that it took her time to process it as a child. This is the typical experience that happened on the frontier and is much more realistic. 

This is a children’s book, but it has a pretty harsh opening with a child being found as the only person alive on her island with everyone else dying from small pox.    I found this haunting and it made me want to read more, but I think it might be much for my six year old if I read it to her.  I would recommend this book for fourth grade and up, but it will vary depending on the sensitivity of the child.

Favorite quotes:

“The only person left alive on the island was a baby girl.” – Opening Line

“’These are my daughters,’ said Deydey, proudly.  ‘Not only did they save the corn today, but they caught and plucked our dinner! They are hunters!’”

“Whenever Grandma prayed, she made the world around her fell protected, safe, and eternal.”

“She spoke so earnestly, with such emotion in her voice that Omakayas was always to remember that moment, the bend in the path where they stood with the medicines, her grandmother’s kind face and the words she spoke.”

“Tenderly, as they walked along, the bird plucked up a strand of hair that had fallen loose from Omakaya’s braid, and then he tucked it behind her ear.”

“Omakayas tucked her hands behind her head, lay back, closed her eyes, and smiled as the song of the white-throated sparrow sank again and again through the air like a shining needle, and sewed up her broken heart.” – Last line

Overall, this is a story that needed to be told, of the people who lived here first and had a full life before being driven from the land.  It’s a perfect story to tell with the pioneering adventures of Little House.

Book Source:  Kewaunee Public Library


  1. A nice way to create awareness of a community that existed.

  2. What an interesting perspective! I enjoyed your review, Laura. I like the idea of a pet cow.:) The quotations allowed me to get a peek inside the story. Terrific review!

  3. The pet crow was very awesome and it was a great look into a past community. Thank-you both for your comments!