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  • Sara St. Antoine

Dispatch #6: A Birchbark Gift

A week of blizzards and ice-cold days has given me a chance to curl up indoors and re-read the entirety of Louise Erdrich's extraordinary Birchbark House series (The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, Chickadee, and Makoons). Everyone should grant themselves this sort of immersion now and then. It's how I read books as a kid, wholly absorbed for so many hours that I stumbled around afterward in a sweet kind of stupor, still hearing the cadence of the characters' dialogue, still half-occupying that other world.

The Birchbark House begins on an island in Lake Superior, where a young Anishinabe girl named Omakayas lives with her extended family. We see mud turtles napping under the swamp grass. We meet a tough old lady hunter named Tallow and a pair of curious bear cubs. We smell stewed moose meat and hear the resounding crack of lake ice announcing its springtime thaw. The graceful flow of Erdrich's language matches the flow of life in this community--fish to people to berries to bears to trees to crows. Every element sings; every element is honored.

A member of the Turtle Mountain band of Ojibwa, Louise Erdrich represents Anishinabe life authentically, sensitively. She also imparts a keen understanding of natural history to her depictions of northern forests and wild creatures. She recognizes that this series can educate readers, but there is nothing heavy handed about the prose. By the time we finish the fifth book, we have joined at least four generations of Omakayas's family in their joys and their hardships as they journey from Lake Superior to the Great Plains. In an interview included in the series, Erdrich said: "The migration across Minnesota into the Dakotas, and the warmth of family life, is something that these books have in common with the Little House series. I am happy that they are being read together, as the Native experience of early western settlement is so often missing in middle-grade history classes." It's a modest statement; her books are, on their own, illuminating and essential.

Reading this series, I was repeatedly struck by the theme of reciprocity in Omakayas's world. Tobacco is proffered humbly when one seeks guidance from an animal or spirit. Fish are gifted to someone in recognition of their hospitality. The Birchbark House series is to me a gift that Louise Erdrich has bestowed on us, her readers, allowing us a greater understanding of America's first peoples and this land as a whole. In the spirit of reciprocity, I wonder: what might we offer in return?

The Birchbark House (series) by Louise Erdrich (Hyperion and HarperCollins: 1999-2016)

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