If only this book was for older students. That’s pretty much my only complaint. Louise Erdrich, author of The Birchbark House, is a very descriptive writer. It borders on poetry. She also crafts a story that draws the reader in and tells an honest story without feeling melodramatic or forced. This story, about an Ojibwa tribe living on Madeleine Island, describes the opening clashes between European and Native Americans. It’s not warfare, well not in the military sense. It’s biological. The small pox comes and decimates the tribe, reminding the Ojibwa just how dangerous contact with the Europeans can be. Yet the Native Americans are somewhat economically dependent on the Whites. They trade with the Europeans and are hired by the Europeans to be their guide on their travels throughout the Great Lakes region.
While Erdrich is not trying to portray the Europeans as “white devils” she certainly is portraying the very real conflict the Native Americans faced. Diseases they couldn’t fight, an economy they couldn’t avoid, and political dealings they had no control over. Plus, the Europeans had no sense of boundary. They just showed up, put up their houses and stayed. So what options are the Native Americans left with? The main conflict, however, is more psychological than social. The book doesn’t attempt to take on European/Native American relationships in the early 1800’s. Instead, it focuses on the life of a young Ojibwa girl.
Omakayas describes her life in a cycle of seasons. Starting in summer and ending the following summer. The beauty of telling the story in this way is that it shows readers how closely the Ojibwa (and I’m assuming most Native Americans) lived with nature. The cycle of the seasons determined where they lived, how they gathered food, and even their religious ceremonies. I felt like I was right there with Omakayas’s family harvesting rice, drying fruit, and trying to fight off starvation in the winter.
Erdrich adds several layers of authenticity to her novel. She, herself, is Ojibwa and her family has researched their ancestors. So I felt that this novel was her way of connecting with her past while at the same time, bring us with her. Giving us a glimpse at a time gone by. For me, it would be hard to be a guide to the past. Especially with a past that’s tainted with potential bitterness. And by that I mean that if my ancestors were treated like hers, it would be hard to be so open and honest with an audience. I guess I would be much more cynical and jaded. But the fact that she isn’t. At least not is this novel, demonstrates that the story, not her personal feelings are what matters. And because of this, I feel that Erdrich is a good voice for guide readers in accessing the past and aiding them in making meaning for the present and future.