Shelf Control #284: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

Shelves final

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Shelf Control is a weekly celebration of the unread books on our shelves. Pick a book you own but haven’t read, write a post about it (suggestions: include what it’s about, why you want to read it, and when you got it), and link up! For more info on what Shelf Control is all about, check out my introductory post, here.

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Title: The Birchbark House
Author: Louise Erdrich
Published: 1999
Length: 256 pages

What it’s about (synopsis via Goodreads):

Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder’s beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich’s first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island.

Readers will be riveted by the daily life of this Native American family, in which tanning moose hides, picking berries, and scaring crows from the cornfield are as commonplace as encounters with bear cubs and fireside ghost stories. Erdrich–a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa–spoke to Ojibwa elders about the spirit and significance of Madeline Island, read letters from travelers, and even spent time with her own children on the island, observing their reactions to woods, stones, crayfish, bear, and deer. The author’s softly hewn pencil drawings infuse life and authenticity to her poetic, exquisitely wrought narrative. Omakayas is an intense, strong, likable character to whom young readers will fully relate–from her mixed emotions about her siblings, to her discovery of her unique talents, to her devotion to her pet crow Andeg, to her budding understanding of death, life, and her role in the natural world. We look forward to reading more about this brave, intuitive girl–and wholeheartedly welcome Erdrich’s future series to the canon of children’s classics. 

How and when I got it:

I picked up a paperback edition many years ago.

Why I want to read it:

I grew up on Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House series, and years later, read the series all over again with my daughter. And while these books will always hold a special place in my heart, as an adult I came to understand so much more about the problematic aspects of these books — especially in terms of how the Little House books portray Native Americans and the casual disregard for their rights to the land in the face of expanding white settlement.

Louise Erdrich’s Birchbark House books were originally introduced to the world as a Native counterpoint to the Little House books. While the Little House books are not explicitly referenced in these books, The Birchbark House is set in about the same era and presents a different take on the land and the people who reside there.

The Birchbark House is the first in a series of five books focused on young Ojibwa characters and their lives. The books are aimed at a middle grade audience, yet they sounds like they’d make a fascinating read for adults as well.

I really don’t remember exactly when I bought this book, but I know I’ve been intending to read it for a long time now. I think it’s about time that I gave it a chance! Plus, having read a few of Louise Erdrich’s adult novels, I’m confident that the writing in The Birchbark House must be wonderful.

What do you think? Would you read this book?

Please share your thoughts!


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Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Book Review: The Round House by Louise Erdrich

Main character Joe is 13 years old the summer that his life changes forever. Joe is the devoted, mostly well-behaved son of two loving parents, growing up on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. His father is a judge in the tribal legal system; his mother works in the all-important tribal registry office, handling the complex web of rights and obligations that are tied into a person’s genealogy and ancestry.

At the start of that fateful summer in 1988, Joe’s mother is brutally attacked and raped. Joe’s secure home and safe world is turned upside down, as the hunt for the rapist and the quest for justice consume the family. Ultimately, however, it is the tangled mess of legalities stemming from early tribal treaties and the creation of the reservations that determines the outcome of the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrator. Different laws apply to different jurisdictions, and the case ends up resting on the question of where the attack took place. Was it reservation land? State land? Federal land? Unless the jurisdiction can be determined, there can be no legal process, and so even though the identity and whereabouts of the rapist are pretty quickly determined, it is not at all clear that the man can or will be tried for the crime.

Those are the bare bones of the plot. At a deeper level, The Round House is a meditation on so much more. Some of the most compelling aspects of this book include:

– The sense of family and community present among the people living on the reservation. Joe’s immediate family is small, but his extended family is huge. Everyone is a cousin or an in-law; everyone plays a role in the lives of others. The support and connection is palpable. There is no hiding here — wherever Joe goes, he is known and welcome.

– The depth of the friendships among the boys in this story. Joe’s friends are his brothers. They have adventures, they get up to mischief together — but they have each others’ backs and their bond is one of love and dedication. The relationships among these boys are quite lovely to read about.

– The outrage over the crime that was committed. I think we are all too used to the awful stigma that still attaches itself to rape survivors in our society, but that sense of shame is completely absent here. Joe’s mother suffers deeply, but her suffering is from fear of her attacker and what he may yet do, to her and to others. What is clear here is that Geraldine was the victim of a violent crime, and she is supported by her community without question and without stinting. The house overflows with casseroles; Joe is looked after by not just his aunt and uncle but by everyone. No one hesitates to ask Joe how his mother is or to offers words of kindness. It’s a refreshing attitude that condemns the attacker without in any way blaming or belittling the woman who was attacked.

– The linking of traditional beliefs to the modern occurences. The elders in the family are respected and honored. Joe’s centenarian grandfather tells tales of buffalo women and evil spirits, but these are not just ancient myths — various facets of the stories come into play in the search for justice for Geraldine.

– The reminder that what may seem to many as an unfortunate chapter in US history is still having an impact on real people’s lives to this day. The daily frustrations of living with the outcomes of the tribal treaties is a very real part of the characters’ experiences. An incredibly powerful scene takes place about 2/3 of the way into the book, as Joe asks his father why he bothers — why does he continue trying cases in the tribal courts when nothing seems to make a difference? In response, Joe’s father pulls an old, moldy casserole from the back of the fridge where it had been forgotten, dumps it onto the table, and then begins to pile utensils and kitchen implements on top of it:

That’s it, he said.

I must have looked scared. I was scared. His behavior was that of a madman.

That’s what, Dad? I carefully said. The way you’d address a person in delirium.

He rubbed his sparse gray whiskers.

That’s Indian Law.

I nodded and looked at the edifice of knives and silverware on top of the sagging casserole.

Okay, Dad.

He pointed to the bottom of the composition and lifted his eyebrows at me.

Uh, rotten decisions?

Joe’s father goes on to explain how he and his fellow judges, in case after case, are attempting to overcome the poor foundations of their legal system by creating strong decisions on top of these, hoping to some day create a stronger framework for laws that support their people’s lives. It’s a lovely scene, showing in few words both the depths of the problems facing the tribe and the strength of the connection between Joe and his father.

The plot of The Round House swirls around the traumatic events of that particular summer, but in many ways the story is a coming-of-age tale with the universal characteristics of a boy’s emergence into manhood. Through the attack and its aftermath, Joe for the first time sees his parents as vulnerable. He starts to realize that they have inner lives, fears and hopes, apart from him, and that they can’t always protect themselves or him from the harsher realities of life. Joe and his close friends are on the cusp of their teen years, developing sexually, exploring the boundaries of freedom, reveling in their small conquests and steps toward independence. Much of the climax of the story has to do with Joe, with the assistance of his friends, taking affirmative steps on his own toward what he feels must be done. Joe has gone from the protected child of the family to a young man who wants to be the protector, and while he may stumble along the way, it is this significant summer that propels him forward into the kind of man he will grow up to be.

It’s easy to see why The Round House won the National Book Award in 2012. This beautifully written, powerful story of family and friendship, crime and justice, tradition and history is filled with memorable, well-drawn characters, dramatic plotting, and moral conundrums. There’s a lot to think over, and I’m still mulling through the events and implications of the various plot turns.

The Round House is not light reading, but it’s certainly worthwhile. I recommend it highly, and look forward to exploring more of Louise Erdrich’s work.

The Monday agenda 1/28/2013

Not a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

Happy Monday! Looking back and looking forward…

From last week:

A little slower on the book front this past week:

Just One Day by Gayle Forman: Done! I liked it much more than I’d expected to. My review is here.

The Round House by Louise Erdrich: Reading now, only about 50 pages into it so far. 

I read a bunch of my son’s graphic novels and reviewed them here.

My long-awaited new Fables paperback arrived last week! I loved Fables: Cubs in Toyland (volume 18), but now have the usual complaint — I don’t want to wait months for the next one to come out!

I also read the first volume of a new (to me) graphic novel series, Y: The Last Man by Brian K. Vaughan. Very intriguing story; I think I’ll be be reading the rest as soon as I can get my hands on them.

And this week’s new agenda:

I think it’ll take me a good part of the week to read The Round House, which is quite good, but fairly heavy.

After that, I may tackle one or two books from my TBR pile, probably An Abundance of Katherines by John Green or Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist by David Levithan…

…although I’m also terribly tempted by my new arrivals, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes and The Child’s Child by Barbara Vine.

I believe this is what’s called an embarrassment of riches! Having too many books to choose from is definitely not a problem I mind having.

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.

The Monday agenda 1/21/2013

Not a lofty, ambitious to-be-read list consisting of 100+ book titles. Just a simple plan for the upcoming week — what I’m reading now, what I plan to read next, and what I’m hoping to squeeze in among the nooks and crannies.

Happy Monday! It may be a holiday, but that’s no reason to skimp on the agenda.

From last week:

Three reviews and two books completed:

Mariana by Susanna Kearsley: I finished this lovely book the previous week, but didn’t have time to get the review done until I came home from a trip.

The Cranes Dance by Meg Howrey: Done! My review is here.

Mrs. Queen Takes The Train by William Kuhn: Done! My review is here.

I also enjoyed reading a few of my son’s graphic novels over the weekend, and will try to write a mini-review/round-up about these books in the next day or so.

Online book group: I’m behind. The Outlander Book Club is doing a re-read of The Fiery Cross by Diana Gabaldon, and I am not keeping up. I love the series — can’t wait for the newest book to come out (fingers crossed) in the fall — but I don’t think I can devote time to re-reading a huge novel right now.

And this week’s new agenda:

Where to begin? I look at my shelves, and I want to read everything. Now.

I’m just getting started with the YA novel Just One Day by Gayle Forman. After that, I’m thinking that it’s time to start The Round House by Louise Erdrich, which I expect will take some time and a lot of attention. I doubt there will be room for anything more this week, but if there is, I’d guess that I’ll be wanting something a bit lighter to round out my reading.

My son and I are enjoying Here Be Monsters! by Alan Snow, which is quite good fun — although we seem to have less and less time to read before bed these days.

Updated to add: How could I forget? Fables, volume 18 is due out this week! And the second my copy arrives, I’ll be dropping everything else to read it.

So many book, so little time…

That’s my agenda. What’s yours? Add your comments to share your bookish agenda for the week.