I discovered Louise Erdrich in college and quickly became a huge fan, collecting most of her books and following her career, which is studded with awards and honors. I think her prose is beautiful and her subject matter and characters fascinating, but what I have always liked best about her is her humor. When I found out that she had written a series for young adults, I knew I had to read it to my boys. And I’ve just finished the first book: The Birchbark House.
Both my boys loved this book. However, they didn’t think they would like it. My 10-year-old son took one look at the cover and groaned. I let my 7-year-old play instead of sitting on the sofa to listen, but he was in earshot. About halfway through the book, he began to sit still and listen with his brother and me. I knew they were both listening when they burst out laughing at a very funny part near the end of the book.
They were captured by the main character’s spirit. She’s a young girl, named Omakayas, or Little Frog, because her first step was a hop. She has a special way with animals, befriending two bear cubs, and she even has a crow for a pet. We learn how her family, members of the Anishinabe (now called Objibwe or Chippewa), build their homes and feed themselves. We spend a full year with them, including the very tragic winter of 1847, but the beauty and messages in this book are uplifting. We are carried along as Omakayas learns important life lessons and discovers whom she really is.
This book had everything in it that I hoped for and felt was important for my two boys to hear. First, it helped them see how the Native American tribes were affected by the arrival of white settlers. (I trust we will continue to learn about this as we continue the series.) Second, it has strong female characters. Third, it allowed them to hear beautifully written prose—something that I haven’t found in every young adult fiction book. This book also deals with loss and grief and healing in a beautiful, sensitive way.
This book would make a perfect readaloud in your homeschool because it’s a story that every age can enjoy, but even if you don’t have young children to read it to, you should read it. It’s that good.