The Birchbark House Summary

Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House

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The Birchbark House Summary

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The Birchbark House is a 1999 juvenile fiction novel by Native American author Louise Erdrich, the first in the four-book The Birchbark Series. It is followed by The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year, and Chickadee. The novel follows the adventures of a young girl named Omakayas and her Ojibwe community, starting in 1847, near what is now known as Lake Superior. The story takes place over the course of a year, as Omakayas develops a greater understanding of life, herself, and her place within her society. Exploring themes of the natural world, European influence on indigenous cultures in America and the need for each of us to confront our fears, the book also offers details of the traditional culture of the Ojibwe, as well as their language and how that shapes their lives. Widely praised for its in-depth and well-researched portrayal of Ojibwe culture, The Birchbark House and its sequels remain staples of school libraries and are frequently assigned as reading for studies of Native culture. It was a finalist for the 1999 National Book Award for young people’s fiction.

The Birchbark House begins with a brief prologue, showing a group of fur traders traveling by canoe abandoning a baby girl, who is the sole survivor of a smallpox outbreak. They’re worried about being infected with the same disease. However, one of the traders thinks that if anyone would come back to rescue the girl from certain death, it would be his fearless wife, Tallow. The story then flashes forward several years, as seven-year-old Omakayas and her family are getting ready to move into their summer home, the titular birchbark house that they build by hand, harvesting the bark and constructing the frame. Omakayas is then sent on an errand to the home of the offbeat village elder, Old Tallow. Omakayas feels an unusual connection to the old woman as she meets her. On her way home, she encounters a family of bears and is initially terrified, however, Omakayas speaks gently and respectfully to the mother bear—as she would to her own grandmother—and her fear fades as the bears leave without harming her.

As the summer advances, she wonders what this encounter meant, celebrates the return of her father from his hunting expedition, and encounters more wildlife with which she has a unique bond. These include a friendly deer, and a crow she winds up adopting as a family pet. Summer fades into fall, and the family prepares to move again to their winter cabin in town. They harvest wild rice and other crops to sustain them through the winter. Omakayas meets with her grandmother to talk about her experiences with the animals, and her grandmother also teaches her about how to use herbs as medicine. Omakayas’ grandmother tells her to trust her instincts about plants and animals. At the same time, Omakayas’ father and his fellow Ojibwe discuss the growing presence of white men in the area, and wonder if the time has come to move west.

Winter arrives, and Omakayas and her family join with the rest of the community to celebrate their annual reunion. However, their celebration is interrupted by the arrival of a sick, exhausted white trader, and a family in the village agrees to take him in. This decision leads to tragedy, as the old man turns out to have smallpox. The disease sweeps through the village, taking many lives despite people’s precautions. Omakayas and her family fall sick, and it’s only through the efforts of Omakayas and her grandmother, and their knowledge of medicine, that most of them survive. However, Omakayas’ beloved baby brother succumbs to the disease, and Omakayas sinks into a deep depression. She is only able to pull out of it thanks to Old Tallow’s guidance. When spring arrives, Omakayas and her family travel to the woods for maple sugar season. She encounters the bears again, and discovers that she has a talent for healing, when she helps her surviving brother with burns he sustained from hot maple syrup. She is visited by Old Tallow again, who explains that she rescued Omakayas years ago after she was abandoned following a smallpox outbreak. That’s why she survived the recent smallpox outbreak, because she had already survived the virus and was immune. That gave her the ability to protect her new family, the way they protected her when they took her in. Knowing this truth about herself, she feels closer than ever to nature and all the life in the world, knowing that the spirits of the animals and of her baby brother will always be with her, and she has a great purpose in the world.

Louise Erdrich is a critically acclaimed American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books, all of which focus on Native American characters and themes. A member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, also known as Ojibwe, she is considered one of the most significant writers of the second wave of the Native American renaissance. A highly prolific author, she has released fifteen novels, a short story collection, seven children’s books (including the four installments of The Birchbark Series), three poetry collections, and three non-fiction works. She has also worked as an editor on anthologies. She is the owner of a small Native American-focused bookstore in Minneapolis. Highly decorated, she has won many of the most prestigious awards in writing. She was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction for The Plague of Doves in 2009, and won the National Book Award for Fiction for The Round House in 2012. She has also received the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction in 2015 and the PEN/Saul Bellow Award for Achievement in American Fiction in 2014.