The Birchbark House Series – A Beautiful Glimpse of Ojibwe Family Life in the Mid-1800s

by Stephanie Lowden, with Philip Martin, for The Storied Past

Louise Erdrich is one of our finest writers, winner of many literary prizes for her adult fiction, including the National Book Award, National Book Critics Circle Award, and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction. The daughter of an Ojibwe mother and a German-American father, Erdrich’s novels explore Native-American themes with memorable characters, storytelling, and often, a graceful touch of magical realism.

Her children’s books also explore Ojibwe history, and are likewise deeply steeped in a wonderful storytelling tradition. As Horn Book noted, “Readers will absorb the history lesson almost by osmosis; their full attention will be riveted on the story.”

Significantly, the series explores a history long missing from American children’s literature, where books like the Little House series or Caddie Woodlawn portrayed Anglo-American pioneers moving westward in positive, ever-optimistic stories. But there are other stories to be told of the indigenous peoples who inhabited those woodlands and prairies and were displaced by crowding, disease, trickery, and outright warfare. Debbie Reese, founder of the website American Indians in Children’s Literature, and others have long championed the importance of seeking authentic voices to tell the native side of our country’s history.

Erdrich’s books do this with singular grace. As Horn Book wrote of the fifth book in the series, Makoons: “Warm intergenerational moments abound. Erdrich provides fascinating information about Ojibwe daily life. Readers will be enriched by Erdrich’s finely crafted corrective to the Eurocentric dominant narrative of America’s past.”

Or as ALA Booklist noted of the first book, The Birchbark House, “Why has no one written this story before?”

Here are summaries of the five books in this lovely series for middle-grade readers.

The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich

THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE, by Louise Erdrich.

(Hyperion, 1999, Ages 8–12.)

The Birchbark House is the story of a young Ojibwe girl growing up on Madeline Island in the 1800s amidst the shadow of white settlers and smallpox.

Omakayas lives, what she considers, the perfect life on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. Moving with each change of the season, her family seems to want for nothing.

But all that changes when a silent enemy enters their life. Although this is a difficult and tragic time, because of it, Omakayas learns what her path in life will be.

The Game of Silence, by Louise Erdrich

THE GAMES OF SILENCE, by Louise Erdrich.

(HarperCollins, 2005, Ages 8–12.)

Omakayas’ story continues when she meets her spirit animal and begins to understand the importance of silence.

A simple children’s game—competing to see who can keep silent the longest—becomes an instrument of survival when the family is informed that white people want their land. Omakayas keeps silent so she can hear the grown-ups worried voices and plans.

She also discovers silence can be a life-saving tool when unwelcome strangers are near.

The Porcupine Year, by Louise Erdrich

THE PORCUPINE YEAR, by Louise Erdrich.

(HarperCollins, 2008, Ages 8–12.)

Omakayas’ story continues when her annoying brother, Pinch, discovers his spirit animal and the family must finally move.

When Omakayas turns twelve, her family begins the move west from Madeline Island. Amidst danger, betrayal and loss Omakayas learns that she will always have her spirit guide to aid her in difficult times.

In this year, she becomes a woman and begins to wonder what the future may hold for her and Animikiins, a young man who is her good friend.

Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich

CHICKADEE, by Louise Erdrich.

(HarperCollins, 2012, Ages 8–12.)

Omakayas is a married woman with twin boys, in this continuation of the story of her family’s westward move.

The family is happy and settled at Lake of the Woods when the unimaginable happens. Now there is a rush westward to save her kidnapped son.

This quartet of books ends with a satisfying conclusion that will leave the reader feeling as if she has been immersed in Omakaya’s world and wishing she could stay there longer for more of her stories.

Makoons, by Louise Erdrich

MAKOONS, by Louise Erdrich.

Available Aug. 9, 2016.

According to the pre-release information on the Birchbark Books website:

“Named for the Ojibwe word for little bear, Makoons and his twin, Chickadee, have traveled with their family to the Great Plains of Dakota Territory. There they must learn to become buffalo hunters and once again help their people make a home in a new land.

“But Makoons has had a vision that foretells great challenges—challenges that his family may not be able to overcome.”

 

If you would like autographed copies of any of these books or explore other books by native authors, we recommend you visit the website for Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis.

For more books for kids about Native Americans, here is an outstanding list, the American Indian Youth Literature Awards, from the American Indian Library Association (AILA), an affiliate of the American Library Association.

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Stephanie Lowden is an author of middle-grade historical fiction. Her books include Jingo Fever, a story of prejudice against German-Americans during World War I,  and Time of the Eagle, a tale of two Ojibwe children facing a winter survival trek, fleeing a smallpox epidemic that devastates their village in the 1700s. A member of SCBWI, Ms. Lowden lives in Madison, Wisconsin. Philip Martin, who contributed to this post, is the publisher of Crickhollow Books / Crispin Books, based in  Milwaukee.

Thanks for visiting The Storied Past. Your comments are welcome. And if you see good books or ideas worth sharing, please pass them on to friends, parents, librarians, teachers . . . and best of all, to young readers!

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3 Comments

  1. Thank you for sharing this information. I wasn’t aware a new Louise Erdrich was coming out. I’ll be sure to get a copy of Makoons.

  2. Dale-Harriet Rogovich

    Splendid review! I read the first every few months, and I recommend it to every teacher I encounter. I’m excited to hear about “Makoon”, too. I’ll get it as soon as I can…megwiich!

  3. Thank you for introducing me to these. I haven’t seen any of Louise Erdrich’s books in the UK but I hope that’s just because i haven’t been looking in the right places… I will seek them out. Thank you for sharing with #diversekidlit.

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