I had originally read Louise Erdrich’s The Birchbark House back in June 2014 when I was looking at teaching more literature written by and about Native Americans. I decided to revisit the book because I thought it would work with a new unit I was putting together for my American Literature course. Unfortunately, I read the book too late to make into booklists for this school year. This wasn’t too much of a loss because I’m still torn about whether to actually teach it or not.
One of the main problems is that the main character is much younger than my students and the point-of-view is very much tied to her age. While books like To Kill a Mockingbird have juvenile protagonists, the point-of-view seems more geared towards adults. The Birchbark House seems much more geared towards middle-school. The devil’s advocate voice in my head argues that sometimes it’s ok for high schoolers to read things below their reading levels seeing as how adults do it all the time. So I’m torn.
The other problem is, I’m looking for a work that fits into the time before the Europeans arrived. The Birchbark House is after the Europeans arrive, specifically the voyageurs. I’m trying to contrast the way of life for the Native Americans prior to the European invasion and then compare that to their way of life after. It feels like there’s a big hole in American literature where we don’t talk about this monumental shift. I feel like all the students get is Squanto, Sakagawea, and maybe Chief Joseph.
I’m asking a lot of The Birchbark House, and it’s not the book’s fault that it can’t meet the standards. It is a good book and it does give voice to an important time and place in Native American literature. Next year I may just teach it and see how it goes. There’s no harm in trying, right?