Life As You Know It

The Books

The Birchbark House

 

The Birchbark House (Birchbark series #1)

Author: Louise Erdrich

Genre: Children’s Literature; Historical Fiction

Publisher: Disney-Hyperion

Published: 1999

Number of Pages: 256

 

Omakayas (Ojibwe for “little frog”) is a girl of seven winters in a small Ojibwe village in the Northwoods back in the 1840s. A precocious and curious girl, Omakayas has several adventures in the course of the novel ranging from a couple bear encounters to the wild rice harvest to a secret afternoon when she lets her baby brother roam free from his cradleboard. Meanwhile, the French fur traders have definitely introduced their own influence on Ojibwe life: goods such as beads, metal pots, and scissors are still relatively new and considered precious; the French have started to take native wives; then of course there is the small pox.

Though this book was definitely written with young readers in mind, it is a good story and a great resource for anyone curious about traditional Ojibwe culture as well as early French influence.

NOTE: I read this book when I was working with at an Ojibwe elementary school in Northern Wisconsin. It came recommend by several people, including the Ojibwe language and culture teacher.

 

Gathering Blue

 

Gathering Blue (The Giver Quartet #2)

Author:  Lois Lowry

Genre: YA Dystopia

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

Published: 2000

Number of Pages: 215

 

Set in the same post-apocalyptic world as The Giver, though in a completely different community, this book follows Kira, a 2-syllable crippled girl with a gift for beautiful needlework. Kira’s mother dies just before the events of the novel. Since her father had died while hunting several years earlier, this leaves Kira as an orphan. Several village members, who covet the small patch of land Kira has inherited, want to run her out of town—they see her as useless due to her deformed leg. However, the Guardians instead decide to use Kira’s talents for embroidery to restore the Singer’s robe for the yearly Gathering. Kira is therefore relocated to the Council Edifice, where she discovers unknown luxuries such as rich foods and running water. As Kira begins her new role and spends more time in the Council Edifice, however, she starts to question many things she has always taken for facts. The more Kira learns, the more she questions.

 

 

The Ties That Bind

Both novels concern the preservation of culture and cultural knowledge. Additionally, both Omakayas and Kira are considered to have powerful gifts, though a stigma initially surrounds both girls as infants.

In The Birchbark House, it’s not so much the narrative as the book itself that seeks to preserve Ojibwe culture. Erdrich depicts traditional ways of food production such as the wildrice harvest, daily chores such as cleaning and food prep, and not-so-daily chores like tanning and scraping a moose hide. Additionally she includes other details such as children’s toys, traditional gender roles/family structures, and several Ojibwe words. For example, rather than using the English “grandmother” Omakayas always refers to her mother’s mother as the Ojibwe “Nokomis.” Some villagers were nervous about Omakayas’s presence as a baby because she is not the biological child of her parents. Rather, she was the lone survivor of a small pox epidemic and was rescued and raised by a new family. Despite the initial unease about the child, Omakayas has a distinct aptitude for certain tasks and abilities and is considered to be very thoughtful and patient for her age. It is hinted that she might grow into a powerful woman who may have a gift regarding dreams.

In Gathering Blue, Kira’s small village takes the task of preserving the past very seriously. Although most villagers are illiterate, the Guardians keep the past fresh in the minds of their people through the yearly gathering. During this ceremony, the Singer tells the history of everything: from the separation of the land and the sea to the emergence of humans with their villages then towns then cities until the Ruin. [It is not explicitly said, but it can be inferred that the Ruin was some sort of cataclysmic event that took out much of humanity; all that remains are the small, splintered communities described in the Giver series.] Kira is spared the one-way trip to the Field specifically because of this yearly ritual: the Guardians need someone to repair the Singer’s robe—a magnificent work of thread that tells the history of everything right along with the song. More than that, Kira the Threader is tasked, along with Thomas the Carver and Jo the Singer of the Future to use their Gifts to thread, carve, and sing the story of the future, to create a sort of map for the village to follow into the future. All three children admit that sometimes when they are practicing their craft, it sort of takes over—they do not consciously decide what to create, rather it just pours out of them. Despite having “the knowledge in her fingers,” most villagers do not believe that Kira should be alive—she was born with a clubbed foot. For most tykes in this harsh village, this would have meant getting abandoned in the Field for the Beasts to devour. However, Kira’s family was traditionally respected in the community and, with her mother’s insistence, the tyke (then called ”Kir”) was allowed to live.  This decision is eventually shown to be a wise one with the emergence of Kira’s gift.

Although one novel chronicles the very real past and the other depicts a highly speculative version of the future, they follow very similar themes and the protagonists follow very similar life trajectories. Both communities are embarking on a new chapter in their history and both girls seem to have a hand in shaping, or at least illuminating, the future.

Up Next

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell, Frog Music by Emma Donoghue, and Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

Cloud-Frog-Anansi

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