44 pages 1 hour read

Louise Erdrich

The Game of Silence

Fiction | Novel | Middle Grade | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

The Game of Silence is work of middle-grade historical fiction by contemporary American author Louise Erdrich. Published in 2005, it is the second novel in Erdrich’s Birchbark House series. The first novel in this series, The Birchbark House (1999), is set in 1847 and introduces Omakayas and her family. The Birchbark House was a finalist for the prestigious National Book Award. With The Game of Silence, Erdrich continues the saga of Omakayas’s family, and this second installment is followed by The Porcupine Year (2008), Chickadee (2012), and Makoons (2016).

Louise Erdrich is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, and The Game of Silence is inspired by Erdrich’s own tribal history. She is the author of 28 books and won the National Book Award for The Round House (2012). She also won the Pulitzer Prize for The Night Watchman (2021). Erdrich is considered a prolific writer whose prose style, multi-layered narratives, and celebration of Indigenous American culture and history have made her a contemporary classic.

This guide refers to the 2005 Harper Collins edition.

Content Warning: The Game of Silence addresses the displacement, loss, and historical injustices faced by Indigenous American communities.

Plot Summary

In Part 1, a nine-year-old Ojibwe girl named Omakayas is rocked by the arrival of desperate tribespeople who have come to her island looking for help. The white government has forcibly pushed these people out of their land, but the only viable land nearby is home to a competing tribe. Omakayas’s family is comprised of her mother, Yellow Kettle; her father, Deydey; her older sister, Angeline; her younger brother, Pinch;, and her grandmother, Nokomis. Together, the family helps the arrivals. Men from the tribe volunteer to contact the white government and figure out what is happening. Fishtail, a man whom Angeline loves, volunteers. Yellow Kettle adopts a baby named Bizheens, who has lost his parents.

Omakayas is enamored of the elders in her community, such as Old Tallow, and she is eager to earn their respect. However, she is hesitant to take the next step in her growth. As a rite of passage, Ojibwe children go to the woods alone to fast and meet their spirits. Omakayas is nervous about this prospect and avoids the coming-of-age ritual. When the tribe goes to collect rice, Omakayas is finally old enough to help. She tries to prove herself by going out alone and ends up ruining the rice. Meanwhile, her cousin, Two-Strike Girl, successfully hunts a giant moose, which garners her honor and respect. Omakayas is given a puppy that she names Makataywazi.

In Part 2, Omakayas and her family prepare for the difficult winter months by moving closer to the town of LaPointe. Angeline trades fish for fabric to make a dress for Omakayas and a vest for Fishtail. Omakayas realizes that Angeline is in love with Fishtail and is worried about him. Omakayas and Angeline visit with the Break-Apart Girl, a white girl who is friends with Omakayas even though they cannot speak one another’s language. Two Strike Girl has created her own army of little boys from the tribe. They play at war but cross a boundary with Old Tallow when they wage war with her dogs.

In Part 3, “Biboon (Winter)”, the Ojibwes become deeply worried about the welfare of those who have gone to deal with the white government; they have heard nothing since the group’s departure many months before. As the weather worsens, Omakayas nearly dies from frostbite, and Old Tallow also suffers from the same condition. Nokomis, the tribe’s healer, is forced to amputate Old Tallow’s finger. In this moment, Omakayas learns that even powerful women like Old Tallow can be vulnerable. Deydey helps the local priest, Father Baraga, to travel to a remote area to convert the people there. Although Deydey preserves his Indigenous culture, he is curious about Father Baraga’s past. Deydey is gone longer than expected, and Omakayas has a vivid dream in which she sees him stranded on an island. A search party is sent out to find this island. Deydey and Father Baraga are found, and Omakayas’s gift of visionary dreams is fully acknowledged by her tribe. One of the men who left to deal with the white government, Cloud, returns with a terrible story. The white government is claiming the Ojibwe land but is not honoring the payment owed to the Ojibwe people. Many men have died of starvation and disease.

In Part 4, Omakayas finally embarks on her spiritual journey. She goes into the woods alone to fast and meet her spirits. Omakayas is met by a bear cub. Bears represent the type of natural medicine that Omakayas is learning from Nokomis, because bears also use plants and herbs to heal themselves. This bear cub is Omakayas’s spirit animal. Omakayas has a premonition in her dreams in which she sees the Ojibwe people forced from their land. She sees the sorrow of their journey, but she also sees the strength in their resilience and beauty in future moments. Fishtail finally returns and confirms Cloud’s story. The Ojibwes pack their belongings and move away from their ancestral lands. They are frightened, but Omakayas is also confident that they will find a new home. Together, they are a family and a tribe embarking on a new adventure.

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