Thursday, February 25, 2016

Book Review: The Birchbark House

(Blogjob tags: AnishinabeAnishinaubaechildren’s bookchildren’s storyChippewacultural expectations of childhoodhistorical fictionLouise Erdrich Birchbark House seriesLouise Erdrich books for childrenOjibwaOjibweyoung adult adventure story about 8-year-old.)

A Fair Trade Book
Title: The Birchbark House 

Author: Louise Erdrich
Date: 1999
Publisher: Scholastic
ISBN: 0-439-20340-6
Length: 239 pages
Illustrations: drawings by the author
Quote: "I've been told those old names should be given life."
The Birchbark House succeeded as a novel and launched a series. In this story and those that follow it, Erdrich is "honoring the life of" some of her distant relatives, Ojibwa people who lived mostly on an island in Lake Superior.
Omakayas ("oh-MAH-kay-ahs") is a little girl who survives smallpox and seems to have a vocation to some sort of healing or nursing work. Brave, strong, and tough beyond her age, she calls an attacking bear "grandmother" and, during the smallpox epidemic, knocks her delirious foster father out cold to keep him from wandering into the snow and freezing to death. If this is not exactly the way a typical Native American eight-year-old child behaved, it is at least the way many Americans would like to believe our great-great-grandmothers behaved at age eight.
The fact is that what's considered "typical" and "age-appropriate" for children does depend considerably on cultural expectations. Some parents today seem to expect, or want, children to grow up much more slowly than would have been possible in a lower-technology culture.
Consider handcrafts. I've heard, "Is it safe for five-year-olds to handle (thick, blunt-tipped plastic) knitting needles or crochet hooks?" Two hundred years ago, American five-year-olds were routinely taught to sew and embroider with sharp metal sewing needles. I've learned to expect "normal" eight-year-olds to be clumsy when spool-knitting cords or making Brownie Squares on two thick, blunt knitting needles; Rudolf Dreikurs reported from a trip to Switzerland that five-year-olds "normally" carried around sets of four or five thin, sharp, double-pointed knitting needles, to knit socks, while tending sheep and goats. 
Or consider just the idea of when children can be expected to look after themselves at home while their parents are out. In many states it's now considered dangerous, irresponsible "neglect" to leave ten- and twelve-year-old children alone at home for an hour. A hundred years ago it was commonplace, if parents felt that they'd done their job and brought up sensible, competent children, to leave ten- and twelve-year-olds alone in charge of the home for a week (with instructions to consult a neighbor or the yardman if they needed help). I was baby-sitting younger children, for an hour or two at a time, at age ten--and now the parents of my Nephews think they need constant adult supervision at ten, twelve, even fifteen.
So here's Omakayas, seven years old when The Birchbark House begins, carrying sharp sewing scissors, baby-sitting her little brothers, cutting wild rice with a sharp knife, cooking over an open fire, and knowing just how to knock her "Deydey" out cold with one blow. Is she a believable child character? I think so. It's not unusual these days for second grade students to lack the coordination, focus, and responsibility Omakayas has. It was probably unusual in Omakayas' time; in a civilization as advanced as the Ojibwa had, seriously attention-deficient and uncoordinated children might have been tolerated as "different"; in really primitive Stone Age tribes, such children just wouldn't have survived.
Erdrich has told Omakayas' story in a format that's likely to appeal to older children, perhaps grade five or six rather than grade two, with lots of picture-free pages and a liberal scattering of Ojibwa words for the reader to learn. This will not necessarily keep envious eight-year-olds from wanting as much freedom and responsibility as Omakayas has--when I was eight I liked books with picture-free pages and brand-new words to learn--but at least it should make The Birchbark House interesting to first-time readers who might be ten, twelve, or maybe forty years old.
What I have, in real life at the time of writing, is the "school market" edition with a photograph of an eight-year-old Ojibwa girl on the cover, rather than the drawing on the cover of the mass market edition. Either way, this is currently a very popular book, new enough that I might feel obliged to tell you to buy it new if it weren't selling for a penny a copy on Amazon. I want to show Erdrich more respect than that. $5 per book + $5 per package means that if you buy The Birchbark House online through this site, you send $10 to me and I send $1 to Erdrich or a charity of her choice. If you buy The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee, since the whole series (up to that point) will fit nicely into one package, you send $25 to me and I send $4 to Erdrich or her charity.