85 pages 2 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Birchbark House

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 1999

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Summary and Study Guide


The Birchbark House is a 1999 juvenile novel by Louise Erdrich. The book is the first in a five-book series. It takes place in 1847 on Madeline Island, or Moningwanaykaning, meaning “Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker,” located on Lake Superior. The book follows the story of Omakayas, a young Anishinabe (Indigenous Ojibwa) girl and her family over the course of one year. While the book is presented episodically, with four different segments highlighting various cultural, thematic, or narrative elements, there is also an overarching narrative to the novel. Many Anishinabe words and phrases appear throughout the story, and there is a glossary of these terms at the end of the book.

The Birchbark House opens with a prologue in which a group of fur traders have found that Spirit Island has been struck with smallpox. The only survivor is a baby girl.Fearing infection, the traders abandon her there and depart.

The narrative then introduces Omakayas and her family—grandmother Nokomis, Mama, sister Angeline, brothers Pinch and baby Neewo, and their father Deydey—as they spend the summer living in their birchbark house. Omakayas visits an intimidating woman named Old Tallow. On the way home, she meets a family of bears and seems to be able to communicate with them. Omakayas also rescues and befriends an injured crow, Andeg, who becomes her constant companion.

In the fall, the family is occupied with preparations for the winter. They harvest a meager amount of wild rice and move from the birchbark house into a warm winter cabin in town. Mama packs a food cache for the winter, and Nokomis prays for protection against disease and hunger.

With winter’s arrival, the family is at first happily occupied with preparations for an annual dance. However, during the dance, a trader who is dying of smallpox enters and receives care from the villagers. In the ensuing smallpox outbreak, every member of Omakayas’s family except herself and Nokomis catch the fever. Omakayas helps to care for her family, but baby Neewo dies in her arms. As her other family members begin to recover, Omakayas falls into a depression. The family then faces starvation as their food store runs out. Nokomis has a prophetic dream of a buck waiting for Deydey. He successfully hunts the buck, and the family survives the winter.

As spring returns, Omakayas and her family begin to emerge from their grief over Neewo. Omakayas has another encounter with the bear family, and she asks them to share the gift of medicine with her. After this, Omakayas reveals a talent for healing when she competently treats burns on Pinch’s feet. The family rebuilds their birchbark house for the summer, and Nokomis’s friend Old Tallow arrives to talk to Omakayas. Tallow reveals that Omakayas was the baby on Spirit Island, and that Tallow’s husband was one of the traders who abandoned her. Subsequently, Tallow threw him out and rescued the baby herself. Omakayas remembers taking comfort in the song of the white-throated sparrows when she was alone. She now hears the voice of Neewo in the song of the sparrows, and she finally begins to move past her sorrow.

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