The Birchbark House

ISBN: 0786814543
ISBN 13: 9780786814541
By: Louise Erdrich

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Children's Childrens Currently Reading Fiction Historical Historical Fiction Multicultural Native American To Read Young Adult

About this book

Nineteenth-century American pioneer life was introduced to thousands of young readers by Laura Ingalls Wilder's beloved Little House books. With The Birchbark House, award-winning author Louise Erdrich's first novel for young readers, this same slice of history is seen through the eyes of the spirited, 7-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas, or Little Frog, so named because her first step was a hop. The sole survivor of a smallpox epidemic on Spirit Island, Omakayas, then only a baby girl, was rescued by a fearless woman named Tallow and welcomed into an Ojibwa family on Lake Superior's Madeline Island, the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker. We follow Omakayas and her adopted family through a cycle of four seasons in 1847, including the winter, when a historically documented outbreak of smallpox overtook the island. Readers will be riveted by the daily life of this Native American family, in which tanning moose hides, picking berries, and scaring crows from the cornfield are as commonplace as encounters with bear cubs and fireside ghost stories. Erdrich--a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa--spoke to Ojibwa elders about the spirit and significance of Madeline Island, read letters from travelers, and even spent time with her own children on the island, observing their reactions to woods, stones, crayfish, bear, and deer. The author's softly hewn pencil drawings infuse life and authenticity to her poetic, exquisitely wrought narrative. Omakayas is an intense, strong, likable character to whom young readers will fully relate--from her mixed emotions about her siblings, to her discovery of her unique talents, to her devotion to her pet crow Andeg, to her budding understanding of death, life, and her role in the natural world. We look forward to reading more about this brave, intuitive girl--and wholeheartedly welcome Erdrich's future series to the canon of children's classics. (Ages 9 and older) --Karin Snelson

Reader's Thoughts


I thought that this book was a little slow to get into. One you passed the few couple chapters, the purpose and plot of the book really pick up. After that, I really enjoyed the book. I think that the things that the protagonist struggles with issues that many young adults also struggle with. This is an important connection that these children can make to the main character and the novel itself. I liked that Ojibwa focus. I think that it was such realistic writing and made me feel like I was there too. I am from the area that this book was placed and I am pretty sure that I have been to the island. So that was an important connection for me.


For those of you who don't know, I'm currently in graduate school for Library and Information Science, with a focus on Children and Young Adult materials. I'm currently in a class about Children's Materials, and while I have a LOT of children's novels assigned to me, I felt like it wouldn't really be fair to apply any of those to my 2013 Reading List. However, I did decide that I wanted at least one to be put towards it, because I had requested in from the library earlier this year but never picked it up due to laziness and forgetfulness. That book was THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE by local author Louise Erdrich. I had helped run a LITTLE HOUSE themed camp at one of the historic sites I work at, and was told that THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE was a very well done counterpoint to those books, showing what life during pioneer times and before was like for the American Indians. I was very happy to see it on the reading list for my class this fall, and I must say that reading it in conjunction with LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE really, really opened my eyes to a few things. So let's get down to the review, shall we?Omakayas is a young Ojibwe girl who lives with her family on an Island in Lake Superior (The Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker, spefically, which is modern day Madeline Island in Wisconsin). She has a mother (mother), a father (Deydey), a grandmother (Nokomis) and three siblings (Angeline, Little Pinch, and Neewo). Her father is half French, the son of a fur trader and still very much active in the fur trade that was occurring during this time, and he spends some of the time of the year away from his family so he can provide for them. The story centers around four seasons of Omakayas's life when she is seven years old, and while it is a very typical life for an Ojibwe family during this time (and well researched by the author, from what I've read on it), that winter everything changes for Omakayas and her family. For a stranger wanders to their camp, and brings with him Smallpox.I was not expecting that twist. Well, alright, I kind of was, because the summary on the back of the book alludes to it. I know enough about local history of the tribes in this region to know that this was the time that Smallpox started to really devastate the people in these groups. But when it happened, it was heart wrenching to see. I foolishly had some hope that, since it was a children's story, everyone I grew attached to in the story would be okay. But that was not the case in history, so it was of course not the case in this story. I feel like it was handled in a very good way. It was matter of fact, but it still showed the grief a person feels when they lose someone, and how long term consequences can remain even after the worst of it has passed. At the same time, however, life went on for the family, and while Omakayas was so sad, and so devastated, she also found strength within herself after all of it.That isn't to say that I didn't spend the last half of the novel very much like Louise Erdrich, like I said, very clearly did some research on the culture and history of the Ojibwe up by the Apostle Islands in Wisconsin. I found this book to be not only peppered with lots of great information, but a great counterpoint to the pioneer novels that have become so beloved in our culture. THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE is one that should be just as much a part of a child's library as the LITTLE HOUSE books are. Phenomenal. I want to find the next one as soon as possible.

Myah Quinn

In all honesty, I had a really hard time getting into this book, especially at the beginning of my reading. Because the text was so detailed and the story took a while to pick up, I just found it a bit hard to get in to at first. It reminded me so much of the Little House books! However, now that I have finished the book, I can say that I really enjoyed reading about Omakayas and the Ojibwe peoples. Erdrich does a great job of making this text into an authentic experience for readers, and I loved the fact that the plot was so close to home. This book had me thinking a lot about how thankful I am for everything that I have in my life, and I think that elementary children could really learn a lot about native peoples and their own lives from this well-written text. It was, overall, a pretty good book.


** spoiler alert ** I enjoyed this book very much. The explorations of the Ojibwa culture were interesting and absorbing. The smallpox was so hard to read about. (Is that a spoiler? Maybe.) The nearness to the bone of their lives cheek by jowl with their insistence that the soul of the people is made of laughter was incredibly poignant. More than once I thought, 'yeah, well, take THAT, Laura Ingalls' but no doubt that's only mean-spiritedness on my part. I did love Laura, but I think I'd rather have had Omakayas to grow up with.I found an Ojibwa word in this book that I love with all my heart: manidominenz (mah-nih-DOH-min-eynz), which means tiny beads- but literally means "little spirit seeds". If I ever open a bead store, that's the name of it.The illustrations were the weakest link, I thought. Again, I found myself thinking of Laura Ingalls and those wonderful Garth Williams illustrations- which added so much to my enjoyment of Laura's opposite side of this tale.

Lisa Vegan

Thank you a million times over to the Children's Books group because I’d tried to read this book some time back, got about ¼ or so the way through it, and put it down because I didn’t enjoy the writing style. Because it’s one of the books chosen as a group read for this book, and because I know a couple of people who love this book, I decided to again try to read it. I’m so grateful that I took this new opportunity.I have such a difficult time with this author’s writing style. Many readers love it, but I struggle with it. The descriptions of how all the animals are used are so vivid, and repulsive to me, even as at the same time I can appreciate these people’s way of life. I did like this book enough to finish it on this (my second) attempt. And, I’m so glad I did because, for me, it went from a 2 star to 3 star to 4 star to almost 5 star book. I loved the ending and was tempted to give this book 5 stars, but given my early struggles, I can’t quite do that.I love the beautiful name Omakayas, and I did love saying it out loud. I very much appreciated that it was a real name taken from a census. At the end of the book, I really appreciate the glossary with pronunciation of Ojibwa words and the author’s note about that language being an oral, not a written, language. Although, when the words are used in the book proper, the English translation is generally used alongside them, so as the reader reads, it’s easy to figure out what they mean. As I always do, I enjoyed the map on the inside covers of the book.The sibling rivalry seems spot on, as does the sibling love. I love Andeg the crow. I love the all the birds, bears, and even the dogs.There is some sadness, with wonderful descriptions of grief and depression. I nearly cried two times, once with a loss that was not a death, and once with the reveal toward the end and going to the end of the book.It’s enjoyable to read of a time and culture where the children are full contributors to their community; they do the work adults do, and when they’re old enough to do certain tasks they do them. There is no artificial separation between the generations, other than the younger people being required to follow the directions of the older people and the young people engaging in some play.I ended up loving this book because the characters, human and non-human, are so memorable and the description of the way these people live is so vivid, and so fascinating. I became completely engaged!

Amanda H

** spoiler alert ** Immediately the first paragraph catches your attention and you expect the story to be full of adventure and interesting. It is not the case until about half-way through. The begining is extremely slow with the background information. It explains how the Objiwa tribe that "Little Frog" is part of prepares their Birchbark house for the Spring and the activities that happen during the spring time. Everything keeps hinting at this great "dream" that "Little Frog" is supposed to get but nothing really happens. The only thing interesting is when she goes into the forest and is playing with bear cubs. Around the middle is when things get interesting but extremely sad. Her whole family (except "Little Frog" and her grandmother) gets Smallpox from the white men. Her grandmother becomes too weak to take care of everyone by herself so "Little Frog" starts to help. Unfortunately then her favorite little brother dies and her older sister's extremely good friend dies. "Little Frog" is left in shock for almost the rest of the book. "The Birchbark House" writing style is more geared towards younger children but the content is anything but for younger children. The begining would make most older children put the book down after about the first chapter. Younger children would probably love it but once the family gets smallpox the content is too strong for most young children to handle. Once I got half-way I enjoyed this book but the begining was dry.

Jamie Leslie

In the book The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich, a young girl named Omakayas lives with her family in the year 1849. When she was a baby, she was the lone survivor of a smallpox outbreak that killed everyone in her village. She then was placed with a foster family though she has no idea that she is not related to them by blood. This story proceeds to tell about Omakayas and her crisis with discovering who she is and what she is meant to do in her life. A great story filled with destiny, hope, tragedy, and love. I think this book would make for an interesting read for students. It would also be great to expand this book across the curriculum by talking about Native Americans during that time for social studies, having students dry their own leather or fur for science, and many other different subjects. The text was easy enough to understand but still presented an interesting story. I think students can relate to this text because there will always be a family member that we lose to a certain sickness, so the reader can definitely relate to the story. I really enjoyed this book. I thought it was a great way to gleam some insight into the daily life of a Native American girl living in 1849. It also introduced a lot of unfamiliar and multicultural vocabulary such as makazins, which are what the characters wore in the book for shoes. I also loved how the chapters were broken up into seasons. This was a great way to introduce the changes the girl and her family had the make with each differing season. I would definitely recommend this book to my peers and students.


Summary: This novel tells the story of a year in the life of a little girl named Omakayas, a member of the Anishinabeg people, and her family in 1847.Response: I enjoyed this quiet, descriptive novel very much. As I was reading, I felt there was more description than plot, and I realized it reminded me very much of "Little House in the Big Woods," I don't know how my "connection" would strike the author, since "Little House on the Prairie" is on Oyate's list of Books to Avoid. Having said that, I began to wonder if this was actually Louise Erdrich's response to the Little house books (and, there are 2 more books that tell Omakayas' story) in that Erdrich has tried to answer the portrayal of Native Americans in Laura Ingalls Wilder's books with her fully developed portrayal of life for the Anishinabeg people in the middle of the 19th century.From my readings of the reviews on the Books to Avoid list, it sounds like what has been missing is not just cultural sensitivity, but also stories that are told from the perspective of native authors. The depiction we find in children's literature is a white person's depiction, and this story, which feels familiar in structure, is told by Louise Erdrich, herself a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa. I wonder if she intended this book to feel so similar to a "Little House" book, or if it is simply the way she wanted to tell this story, and I made that connection having grown up on a steady diet of laura and her family.


I really enjoyed this book. I love Louise Erdrich as an author and read her children's book at the recommendation of a friend. I wish I'd read this as a child, because it's exactly the sort of thing I would have loved!The book deals wonderfully with identity, family, responsibility, and death from a child's perspective. It's also an interesting historical look into Native American life in 1847. Erdrich's love and respect for her heritage always shines through in her work.I love Erdrich's normal writing style, and while it wasn't quite as nuanced, I liked her "child voice" as well. I thought it was an honest portrayal of a child's mind with which any young person (especially those with siblings) could identity. Overall, I would recommend this book to children or tweens, or anyone who is a fan of Erdrich's work.


The story "The Birchbark House" by Louise Erdrich takes place in Lake Superior in 1847. The story is about Omakayas who is 7 years old who is moving to another camp because of what they do each fall. On a cold winter night, a mysterious man knocks at Omakayas' cabin. He presents Omakaya and her family a "friend" of his which is really an invisible person. But as the story moves on Omakaya learns some family history of her ancestors. On a rating of 1-5, 5 being the best, I would give it a 3 because it was really intense once she learned a secret. The only bad thing was the conclusion and climax because none of the 2 didn't make sense at all. I would recommend this book to people who like a mix of mystery, history, and a brief amount of comedy. This book is 241 pages long.


Auspicious beginning to a trilogy of books by Native American author Louise Erdrich. Omakayas is rescued from an island decimated by smallpox by a strong and individual woman, Old Tallow, and is adopted by an Anishabe family. Their beloved island, Island of the Golden Woodpecker, is coveted by English settlers and the traditional life of the tribe is changing. When smallpox hits this community, Omakayas (Little Frog) is able to help nurse some members of her family back to health, and as a result learns of her adoption. There is a glossary of Indian words at the end.


This was a very nice book I read for my World Lit for Children class. It follows one year in the life of a Ojibwa girl. There wasn't necessarily a typical plot structure with a beginning, middle, and end... it was really more events in her life, and showing how she grew up and started to realize who she was. It was very well done though, and I enjoyed the detailed glimpse into Ojibwe life. Also, my Professor said that this book takes place around the same time as the Little House on the Prairie books, which makes it an interesting contrast to that series!


OBOB 2014. My 9-year old son began reading this book and said it was boring, so I had low expectations. I was very pleasantly surprised. I enjoyed the characters and respected how the author tackled tough issues like death, hunger, traditions, racism and family in a real, yet age appropriate way. It did take a little while to get into the plot, but it was a rewarding read once you were hooked.

Chris Ibert

This is a beautifully written book about Native American life in the time of Westward Expansion. It focuses on the Ojibwe tribe, located on an island in Lake Superior. It gives the reader a very clear picture of day-to-day life in the tribe, with the center of the story being one family in particular. As it is written for adolescent readers, or even a little younger, it describes their life through the eyes of an 8 year old girl and the author captures her innocence authentically. At times in the first half of the book I found it to be a little bit dull. ALthough I was getting a good grasp of the Ojibwe way of life, there didn't seem to be much plot. Then a tragedy strikes the family very abruptly and I was completely taken aback. The rest of the story comes full circle very successfully and I ended up liking the book much more than I thought I would. My students are reading this now and they seem to be getting a lot out of it, many have finished it already. At 12 years old, they are the target audience so that is fortunate. For most adults, this would be a book to read with children, particularly if they want to learn about Native American life in the 19th century.


Omakayas is seven at the start of The Birchbark House where the reader is immediately immersed in the rhythm of life for the Ojibwa family when they are building a birchbark house for the summer. In addition to the fascinating and minute details of daily life, the reader also learns about the cultural customs such as oral storytelling, creation myths, and spiritual beliefs within the tribe. In an interesting parallel, the birchbark is important to not only building the temporary housing structures but is also used to wrap the dead in burial. With her expert background knowledge, Erdrich's story of Omakayas, her family, and the various figures they encounter is a fascinating immersion into the culture and customs of the Ojibwa.

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