Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich; read by Nicolle Littrell (1999)

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness."  Erdrich, in her beautiful, simple language, is describing the feelings of Omakayas, an Ojibwa girl from the 1840s.  Omakayas and her family are out "sugaring" from maple trees; spring is in the air, everything seems happy, gay, carefree.  But Omakayas is remembering the hard winter that was just ending, when smallpox struck, killing many, including her beloved baby brother and a dear friend.  This line could also be describing this incredible book.  It's a sweet book, but also tinged with sadness.  It's meta sadness too; we are sad for Omakayas and her family, but we are also sad because we know what is coming - hints of the "chimookoman," the white man eventually driving them away is present throughout the novel; also sadness for a lost way of life.  Not simple; this isn't a romantic view of the Enlightenment noble red savage.  The life of Omakayas is difficult, with much concentration on finding food and making a living.  Sickness and death is present from the very beginning as well.  But the sadness lies in this people and their ways, gone for over a hundred and fifty years.  A sweetness tinged with sadness.

An adult reader - and a particularly knowledgeable younger reader, can't help but to compare another little house in the woods of the upper midwest, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder.   Erdrich seems to be telling a mirrored story of Laura and her family; the setting is the similar (a little birchbark house); the narrative voice is similar (American plain style writing?); Wilder goes into detail about various day-to-day activities, so does Erdrich.  The Ingalls family and Omakayas's family both have "sugaring" parties, although with different outcomes. Both Laura and Omakayas describe in loving detail their cousins.     Both characters suffered a hard winter, although Laura was much older (both families nearly starved to death though).  

This isn't Little House though; you shouldn't dive into this book thinking that it's a carbon copy with Native Americans standing in.  For one thing, Laura Ingalls Wilder, like Omakayas, had a little brother who died; Erdrich decided to make that death one of the central points of action of the book; Wilder left her little brother completely out.  The Little House books are tinged (tainted?) with Rose Wilder Lane's Libertarian beliefs; the Ingalls are always headed west (happily so) and completely rely on themselves (which wasn't really true).  Omakayas and her family will eventually and unhappily head west, against their will; they also have a close knit and supportive community that helps one another.  Differences are celebrated as well; Old Tallow is one of my favorite characters, a woman who hunts bears and lives like man, breaking gender stereotypes (as well as Native American stereotypes, I think).  The family is also mixed race, with French as well as Ojibwa ancestry. 

 I still love the Little House books after all these years, although I can see their flaws.  I love The Birchbark House just as much.  

I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn in there as well.  They can all go whoop Nellie Olsen's ass.

The Birchbark HouseThe Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"Sadness overwhelmed her when she tasted the sweetness." That's how Omakayas, the main character, felt when tasting spring maple sugar after a particularly brutal and deadly winter. That's also how I felt when reading this book. It's superbly simple story, but rich in character, plot and detail. It's also a sweet story, because Omakayas, her pet crow, her bratty little brother, her beautiful older sister, are all crafted so lovingly and carefully. But sadness will overwhelm you, dear reader - Erdrich doesn't let us look at 1840s Native American life with rose colored glasses. You are sad because of some plot points (which I won't spoil) and you are sad because Erdrich hints - and you know - that chimookoman, white people, are coming to drive Omakayas and her family away. You are sad because a way of life is going to disappear.

Erdrich seems to be taking another little house story, that of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and taking some of the themes found in those famous books, and skewing them in such a way to make you think, contrast and compare. Discerning lovers of the Little House books who also recognize their flaws will enjoy this book as much or more. Both have similar settings, simple writing styles, are family and "small adventure" driven, and contain many details of a past way of life. Even some of the scenes in the book are similar - both have maple sugaring parties, for example, although quite different. But Erdrich isn't giving us a carbon copy of the Little House books with Ojibwa stand-ins. Erdrich's character are more varied, and the addition of Old Tallow, a gender-norm breaking female bear hunter, as well as another female cousin who runs with the boys, gives girls like this some characters to relate to - the Little House books are always reminding poor Laura to be a regular girl, not herself (although Laura chafes at this throughout the series, and in real life too).

I've read this book at least twice, listened to it on audio once - and each time come away more impressed. It's a marvelous book. I would love to see Laura and Omakayas meet and exchange stories; let's add Caddie Woodlawn Caddie Woodlawn in there as well. And Nellie Olsen - we can see how these four very different girls from the same time period would interact. What a delight that would be!

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