The Birchbark House (Book #1) (c.1)

by Louise Erdrich

Paperback, 2002



Local notes

PB Erd (c.1)




Hyperion Books for Children (2002), Edition: Reprint, 256 pages


Omakayas, a seven-year-old Native American girl of the Ojibwa tribe, lives through the joys of summer and the perils of winter on an island in Lake Superior in 1847.


Original language


Original publication date


Physical description

256 p.; 6 inches

User reviews

LibraryThing member shelf-employed
Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House is a tale of love, loss, and growing up, for Omakayas, a 19th century Objibwa, or Anishinabe girl living near Lake Superior. It is also a recounting of the ways of the Anishinabeg at the dawn of Western expansion. The adventures of Omakyas, her family and her
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people will delight middle school age readers who will identify with Omakayas and her family.

Erdrich’s The Birchbark House is a beautiful weaving of the literary and the historical, following the life of 7-year-old, Omakayas in the year 1847. The details of Omakayas’ Anishinabeg lifestyle never interfere with the story; instead, they provide a rich backdrop providing interest as well as information. Native American cultural markers are numerous, authentic, and integral to this affecting story.

Omakayas lives a life familiar to many children. She has an older sister whom she envies for her beauty and grace, a younger brother whom she despises for his selfishness and greed, and a baby brother whom she adores for his sweetness and innocence. Her mother is firm, yet loving. Her grandmother, or nokomis, is kind and wise. Her father is often away on business, trapping to provide skins for the White traders. She loathes certain of her chores, particularly the scraping of hides to make leather, she looks after her brothers. These connections render Omakayas accessible to 21st century children. It is through this connection that cultural details are channeled.

Respect for elders is shown throughout the book, from a simple line regarding Grandma, “the dappled light of tiny new leaves moved on Grandma’s beautiful, softly lined face,” to Omakayas' behavior around the strong-willed elder, Old Tallow, “She wished the old woman good health, and called her “Auntie” because it was a sign of affection, though Omakayas was not really sure exactly what she felt. After she’d spoken, she stood politely, waiting.” A reverence for one’s elders is consistently apparent.

The Ojibwa people are portrayed realistically in Birchbark House- not always serious, not always good (especially in the case of Omakays’ brother known as Pinch!), and not always mystical and “all-seeing.” Omakayas’ father, Deydey has a wry sense of humor. Although dreams are taken seriously in the Anishinabe culture, he is not above poking fun at his friend’s sillier dreams. “’Last night I dreamed my head got stuck in a kettle,’ (LaPautre) revealed his voice low and troubled. ‘It must have been a very big kettle’ Deydey said, solemnly, for LaPautre had a big round head and a full moon face.” In another scene, Deydey again teases LaPautre for his dream about lice, while Omakayas and her sister, hiding in the brush “clapped hands over their mouths to stifle their glee.” Light hearted moments are interspersed throughout the book, as they are in life.

Another trait common to Native American people is a willingness to welcome strangers. This is exemplified, though disastrously so, when Omakayas’ people welcome a traveler with smallpox to their lodge.

Birchbark House also evokes the theme of the circle or cycle, common to many Native Americans. The chapters are grouped into books, each named for one of the Anishinabe seasons. The family travels from their winter quarters where they ice fish and survive the harsh winter, to the sap harvest when the maple trees thaw, to the rice harvesting grounds, and to birchbark house where they hunt, gather berries, prepare hides, and prepare foods for winter storage. The story spans a year in Omakaya’s life, beginning and ending at the birchbark house that her family builds anew each spring; and though the clan has suffered loss, there is also joy, the return of one lost, and the renewal of the spring season.

Ojibwa, or Anishinabe words are placed throughout the story, both with English translations and with contextual clues. An author’s note explains the Ojibwa language, and a glossary and pronunciation guide follows the story. Some words, such as the greeting, ahneen, are used often enough to remember. Other words and phrases will have the reader flipping frequently to the glossary. Welcome additions to the text are three “stand-alone” stories told by Omakayas’ relatives. The stories illustrate the inventiveness and purposefulness of Native folktales. “Deydey’s Ghost Story” is especially enjoyable, featuring cleverness in the face of fear.

Small pencil drawings by the author dot the story, adding interest, illuminating Omakayas’ encounters with bears, her parents’ makazins, members of her family and more. The drawings are crisp and clean with just enough detail. The faces are varied but distinctly Native in shape and coloring. The depictions of clothing, tools, and living quarters is reflective of the narrative's description.

An interesting facet of The Birchbark House is its varied perspective on Western expansion. Though the story is told via the young Ojibwa girl, it is clear that her family is not completely opposed to the Whites, or chimookoman. Omakayas’ father is part White. He regularly trades with the Whites and takes pride in his prowess at chess, the White man's game. The clan’s Old Tallow has a disdain for the Whites, yet she too has adapted somewhat to the White ways, living as Omakayas’ family, in a cabin during the winter. Mother sews metal thimbles to her daughter’s dress; father buys calico, velvet and beads from the fur traders. They harbor no ill will against the missionaries, and note that they were helpful in caring for Ojibwa with smallpox. At the same time, they note the European Americans' insatiable hunger for land and the eventual conflict that will arise from the incessant push Westward. This multi-faceted view adds to the richness and realism of the book.

The Birchbark House is an exemplary example of a book depicting a Native American culture in a realistic and engaging manner. The historical and narrative qualities are equally first rate and the author’s own artwork adds to Birchbark’s authenticity. Highly recommended.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
Book on CD narrated by Nicolle Littrell

What Laura Ingalls Wilder did for the pioneer families in 19th century plains states, Erdrich has done for the Native Americans in this same time period.

Omakayas is a seven-year-old Ojibwa girl living in Michigan. She is the sole survivor of a small pox
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epidemic when she’s taken into another family as an infant. Tallow is a strong matriarch and Omakayas (also called Little Frog), thrives in the community on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island, also known as the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. The book follows Omakayas, her family and the tribe through four seasons of 1847.

I was fascinated by this story of the life of the Native Americans during this time period. I learned about the hard work of tanning hides, the craft of decorating special garments with intricate beadwork, the cycles of hunting and gathering, and the dangers (and joys) of living so close to nature.

Omakayas is a wonderful narrator – inquisitive, observant, intelligent, and compassionate. She’s also a typical seven year old – sometimes a little naughty, and not always understanding the reasons why she is asked to perform certain tasks, or forbidden from other adventures. I can see why this is sometimes taught in social studies classes for middle-grade students.

Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa, and she spoke to various Ojibwa elders about the significance of Madeline Island. Events depicted are historically accurate (including a documented small pox epidemic). The text version includes Erdrich’s pencil drawing illustrations.

Nicolle Littrell does a fine job performing the audio version. She has good pacing and the book is clearly understandable for even younger readers.
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LibraryThing member booksofcolor
The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich is about four seasons in the life of an Ojibwa girl named Omakayas in 1847. It's well written and features some good female characters. Personally, I would be happier to see more children's fiction featuring modern First Nations characters and communities, and
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this probably wouldn't have been "exciting" enough to appeal to me as a kid, but I think it's a good response to books like Little House on the Prairie and would appeal to children who enjoyed the Little House books without thinking critically, and to children who wanted to like that sort of story but were alienated because of the racism. (I really wasn't cool, though, with my white prof's attitude that we don't have to talk about how problematic the racism in Wilder is just because The Birchbark House exists).
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LibraryThing member LibroLindsay
It seemed like it took half the book to get started, but I couldn't put it down by the end (well, at least between fevered naps). Erdrich writes winter better than anyone, hands down.
LibraryThing member JanaRose1
The Birchbark House follows Omakayas (Little Frog), a member of the Ojibwa Native American tribe, through four seasons during 1847. From a smallpox epidemic that threatens her entire family to a winter of starvation, the family find time for love and adventure. Beautifully written the characters
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come to life through the dialogue and their interactions. Children of all ages will relate to Omakayas struggles. Overall, I highly recommend this book.
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LibraryThing member anneofia
I was intrigued on finding this children's book because I remembered reading "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse" by the same author last year. That book dealt with the Ojibwa Indian tribe, and so does this one. While not having so many social issues and subplots as the adult "Last
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Report," this book is well written and informative for its younger audience. It leads the readers through a year in the life of an Indian family living on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. In the summer they construct a wigwam out of birch bark, which is how the story gets it name. The bookt has some very sad parts, but on the whole is life affirming and upbeat.
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LibraryThing member rachel0217
This is a good book about the struggles of a young Ojibwa girl. Throughout this story she tells about her life and the traditional culture that her family shares.
LibraryThing member PatsyAdams
Grade: 3-5
Genre: Historical fiction
Themes: Native American, family, grief
The story tells of Omakayas, an eight-year old Anishinabe girl. it takes place through the four seasons of life for her tribe. Her family becomes infected with small pox and get very sick and her youngest brother dies.
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Omakayas' heart is broken and she doesn't know how to mend it. Omakayas has a special connection with the animals around and befriends a crow who becomes her constant companion. This book was unable to keep my attention. I listened to it on cd and wonder if this might have been part of my inability to focus on the story. I think it might be a good read aloud to do with third grade in their Native American unit. They would have the background information to get hooked. The teacher would have to be able to say the dialect, which might prove difficult.
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LibraryThing member irisdovie
I loved this book. It reminded me of how natives used to live with the seasons and with nature. It also reminded me of a book called Ghost Fox by James Houston, in which a white teen is taken by Abnaki warriors. She is eventually adopted as if she were Abnaki also, and enjoys her life better than
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if she were in the white world. I would use this book to teach children how people used to live and depend on the seasons and nature.
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LibraryThing member Brianna82
Personal Response:
Louise Erdrich offers a powerfully authentic look into the culture of the Ojibwe native american tribe in Minnesota near Lake Superior. The character development is done in such a way that you are instantly connected, it's no wonder the book inspired an entire series! The book
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would be excellent to work into school curriculum and read-aloud to middle schoolers in 4th-6th grade.

Plot Summary:
The story divided by seasons follows the main character, 7-yr-old Omakayas, and her family members as they search for birchbark for their new home during the Fall. The plot twists and turns when a breakout of small-pox falls on the family and their surrounding community. The very end of the book reveals a great secret that Omakayas discovers, and one that ties together the entire story and her fate.

Ojibwe Native Tribal tradition/folklore/cultural practices; courage; bravery.
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LibraryThing member ECraine
A really enjoyable book, mostly due to its strong characters and the obvious affection and love between the family members. It is the relationships between Omakayas and the other characters that is really the strength of this book. Additionally, the incredible detail the author uses to describe
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everything from recipes to clothing to moving locations, aids in creating a unique and delightful look at the life of an Ojibwe family in the late 19th century. Omakayas is a wonderful heroine – she is strong, but not without faults, and the reader can see her growing into her own person. The grief she feels in the latter half of the book is palpable, and her final reconciliation with the tragic events of the winter, her own beginning, and the path of her future leaves the reader feeling satisfied and hopeful.
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LibraryThing member marciaskidslit
Birchbark House conveys the spirit and strength of the Native American people during the mid-1840s. During this time they fought many opposing forces just to survive as a people: the white man, disease, animals, and the elements of nature. They were great hunters and resourceful people whose tribal
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customs, family relationships, and beliefs helped them to persevere. Birchbark House is an accurate and authentic story. Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibawa. Erdrich’s mother and sister conducted genealogy research and found ancestors on both sides of the family who lived on the island during the story’s timeframe. The Madeline Island Historical Society was also consulted in the research. Erdrich includes an author’s note on the Ojibwa language as well as a glossary.
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LibraryThing member AbigailAdams26
I originally read The Birchbark House - Anishinaabe (Ojibwa) author Louise Erdrich's first foray into the world of children's fiction - when it was just published in 1999, but had been meaning to reread it for some time, in order to move on to the sequels (The Game of Silence and The Porcupine
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), when it was chosen as our September selection over in the Children's Fiction Club to which I belong. How glad I am that it was, as I enjoyed this reading just as much as the first!

The story of Omakayas (meaning "little frog"), a young Ojibwa girl growing up on an island in Lake Superior during the nineteenth century, it feels utterly authentic, offering a convincing portrait of Ojibwa life at that time and place. The central importance of food gathering, in the lives of Omakayas and her family, the seasonal move between their house in the settlement (used during winter) and their birchbark house (in summer), the growing pressure of incoming white settlers, forcing the Ojibwa ever further west, are all apparent. So too, tragically, is another consequence of white encroachment: the spread of disease to native populations, whose lack of immunity proved so disastrous. This last theme is particularly important, both in setting up Omakayas' story, and in providing one of the central challenges she faces: how to cope with the terrible loss of a loved one.

The Birchbark House isn't just a convincing work of historical fiction, however, but an engaging tale of a girl whose feelings and experiences - though tied in to specific time, place and culture - can be appreciated by readers of all kinds. Any child with a sibling will empathize with Omakayas' frustration with her younger brother, Pinch, or her simultaneous admiration and resentment of her beautiful older sister, Angeline. Similarly, many readers will identify with her searching after meaning and purpose, which eventually leads her - via some very satisfying scenes with some bears - to the realization that she is called to be a healer.

Erdrich's prose draws me in, as do her lovely illustrations (I hadn't even realized, before reading this, that she was an artist, as well as an author!), and the complete experience of The Birchbark House is one of intellectual engagement and emotional satisfaction. I loved the characters, both human and animal (particularly Omakayas' crow, Andeg), and found the story immensely involving. The conclusion, in which Omakayas finds some resolution of her grief, was very moving. Highly recommended, to young readers who enjoy historical fiction, or to Erdrich fans in general.
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LibraryThing member bluemopitz
A great book about a young American Indian girl in Minnesota in the 1800's. I enjoyed this book a lot and decided to read the two sequels as a result. It was an engaging story and it was fun to learn about the kind of lives lived by the Ojibwa through the eyes of a little girl. Could be used in
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curriculum about Native
American life.
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LibraryThing member jackiediorio
Omakayas has a beautiful little brother, and she loves him very much. She describes her life with him and her family, as they live in a birchbark house they make every year during the summers, and a cabin during the winter. Omakayas has many responsibilities, including many chores she dislikes,
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such as scraping animal hides, and she forms a bond with a pair of bear cubs.

The family falls ill though, except for Omakayas, and everyone recovers except her little brother. When she is dealing with loss, her father tells her that she was adopted from an island struck by the same disease, and she was the only one to survive. Through the help of her family, and reuniting with her bear cub friends, Omakayas manages to move past her brothers' death, although she will never forget him.

Unfortunately, there isn't an overwhelming amount of accurate books out there about the lives of Native Americans, so this book is a boon in that sense. The story is accurate and factual, and Omakayas is a relatable narrator, who complains about chores and annoying older siblings, just like children of today might. Unfortunately, the book does have some sad notes which may sadden readers, so it would probably be best if there was a parent or teacher around to discuss the books and the topic of loss with readers.
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LibraryThing member KimReadingLog
It is the year 1847, and 8-year old Omakayas wishes things were different. She wishes she were beautiful like her older sister, Angeline; wishes she didn’t have such an annoying younger brother (Pinch); wishes she could spend more time caring for sweet baby Neewo like he was her own; and wishes
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she didn’t have to spend quite so much of her time tanning hides. One winter evening, a sick French voyageur stumbles into the Ojibwa dance lodge, and soon Omakayas is wishing for some different things – wishing the stranger hadn’t brought smallpox to her village; wishing it didn’t weaken her family and kill her friends and baby Neewo; and wishing she knew what she could do to help the survivors. Guided by her wise grandmother, village elders like gruff Old Tallow, and her bear brothers with whom she shares a special connection, Omakayas embarks upon a journey of self discovery. In the process, she learns more about where she came from – but more importantly – where she is going. In her first novel for children, Ojibwa author Louise Erdich gives an accurate portrayal of Ojibwa life in the 1800’s. Through descriptive writing, she weaves everyday life with traditional folktales that honor the Ojibwa people and keep their stories alive.
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LibraryThing member satyridae
I enjoyed this book very much. The explorations of the Ojibwa culture were interesting and absorbing. The smallpox was so hard to read about. (Is that a spoiler? Maybe.) The nearness to the bone of their lives cheek by jowl with their insistence that the soul of the people is made of laughter was
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incredibly poignant. More than once I thought, 'yeah, well, take THAT, Laura Ingalls' but no doubt that's only mean-spiritedness on my part. I did love Laura, but I think I'd rather have had Omakayas to grow up with.

I found an Ojibwa word in this book that I love with all my heart: manidominenz (mah-nih-DOH-min-eynz), which means tiny beads- but literally means "little spirit seeds". If I ever open a bead store, that's the name of it.

The illustrations were the weakest link, I thought. Again, I found myself thinking of Laura Ingalls and those wonderful Garth Williams illustrations- which added so much to my enjoyment of Laura's opposite side of this tale.
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LibraryThing member E.J
I think this book is perfect to help my nieces value the earth and learn about the Native American way of life which teaches so much respect for everyone and everything around us.
LibraryThing member JenJ.
The Birchbark House takes us through a year in the life of 8-year-old Omakayas of the Ojibwa, or Anishinabe. It's 1847 and, while the chimookomanug (white men) are there on the outskirts of life, Omakayas' family has been able to keep their home and way of life - despite much talk of possibly
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moving west. The family lives in tune with the seasons and nature, particularly Omakayas who seems to have a special connection to animals. Just like most little girls, Omakayas finds her little brother annoying, worships and envies her older sister, and adores the baby. Summer and fall follow along like every year with chores and celebrations, but it is during the long, hard winter that tragedy strikes and Omakayas will have to learn whether or not she has the strength to save her family - and if she has the strength to save herself. If you like the Little House books by Laura Ingalls Wilder, read The Birchbark House, and its sequels The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year, for a glimpse of how just one Native American family of the same time period might have lived.

My understanding is that Louise Erdrich set out to write this series as a response to the terrible way in which Native Americans were portrayed in the Little House books by Wilder. Knowing this makes reading The Birchbark House even more fascinating. Just like the maple sugar section of Little House in the Big Woods there's a maple sugaring chapter here. Just as the Ingalls family travels to see relatives and have a party, Omakayas' family travels to see their relatives for ricing time and to have a party. Just as the Ingalls family has encounters with wildlife including bears, Omakayas encounters lots of wildlife - including bears. However this has harder themes than the first Little House book does with small pox visiting Omakayas' family and friends and claiming lives. The section following the death of Omakayas' littlest brother is a very realistic portrait of how a family might react to the death of a child and the pain they would feel. August 2009 Cover to Cover selection.
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LibraryThing member Jenpark
This is a pretty good story. It has a feel a little like The Little House on the Prarie series, which is kind of ironic. The story was kind of slow moving in parts because it was more about character development and illustrating a way of life than about building to a climax. However, it did make me
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cry at least once, showing that the character development was pretty successful.
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LibraryThing member idiotgirl
A fine litlle book about a young girl. Bought for my granddaughter. Audible.
LibraryThing member foggidawn
Omakayas is a young Native American girl who lives with her family on an island on Lake Superior. Though the story is set in the 1840s, contemporary readers will empathize with Omakayas' struggles with her siblings, her desire to be treated as a more mature girl rather than a child, and her
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thoughts about the purpose of her life. These strands weave together so that the mostly episodic plot has a nice cohesion. I think this book serves as a nice counterpoint to the Little House series, which is excellent in many ways but does tend to vilify the Native Americans that appear in that story.

I listened to the audiobook of this story, and found it enjoyable. I think listening to this book on audio was a particularly good decision for me, since there are many unfamiliar words and names that I would have stumbled over if I were just reading.
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LibraryThing member GayWard
Louise Erdrich opens a window to an ancient culture. She uses such detail in describing the daily lives, roles, responsibilities and spiritual journeys of the Ojibwa, that one is transported into another time and place.
LibraryThing member Sistahluck
Louise Erdrich has done the world of children's literature a great service. I read somewhere she wanted to write this series as a answer to the Laura Ingalls Wilder books. Those books (favorites when I was a girl) are classics of American children's literature, but they always mentioned Native
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Americans in a bad light. Omakayas is an Ojibwe girl with a wonderful family, complete with spoiled little brother, and a pet raven named Andeg. She has troubles, worries, and adventures just like any young girl. Fantastic series for children of any age!
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LibraryThing member Cheryl_in_CC_NV
For some reason this didn't quite hit my 'enjoy' button. I believe it was well-written, and it had a good mix of historical value, excitement, humor, family relationships, and coming-of-age inner story. I suspect the only kids who read it are those who get it read to them in school, though.

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