The Ojibwa trappers had come to trade with the villagers on Spirit Island, but what they saw caused them to turn their boats around and head for home as quickly as they could. The entire island seemed empty of life. Smallpox, the terrible illness for which the Native Americans had little immunity, had wiped out everyone. Well, almost everyone. Still alive and crawling through the ruins was a baby girl, all alone.
Omakayas, or Little Frog, was soon adopted into another Ojibwa family on Lake Superior’s Madeline Island. Her life is as rich and full as that of another beloved book character, Laura Ingalls, and there are many similarities between the stories, including the children’s delight in nature and wild creatures.. Omakayas’ family’s everyday activities and celebrations and tragedies are carefully set down, from season to season. The Birchbark House is foremost a very well-written story with believable, lovable and intriguing characters, including Omakayas’ annoyingly greedy little brother and beautiful but sometimes cold-hearted big sister. Older generations are also well-represented. The grandmother, a gifted healer, shares stories of long-ago, and her dreams are filled with omens of things to come and solutions to real-life problems given by the spirit world.
The author, Louise Erdich, was in a wonderful position to research and share this Native American culture as she is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwa. She spoke with the tribal elders, visited the places she wrote of with her children, and drew her own gentle illustrations which complement the text perfectly. As in The Little House books, while the warmth of family love is central to the story, realistic characters and tense, sometimes tragic situations make this book full of wonder and hard to put down. Omakayas’ family story continues in The Game of Silence and The Porcupine Year.