Shelf Control #284: The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich

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Welcome to Shelf Control — an original feature created and hosted by Bookshelf Fantasies.

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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A programming note: Due to travel plans, I will not be posting a Shelf Control post next week, 9/8/2021. Shelf Control at Bookshelf Fantasies will return 9/15/2021! Meanwhile, if you do a Shelf Control post, please share your link!

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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