The Birchbark House, by Louise Erdrich
It's 1847, and eight-year-old Ojibwa girl Omakayas lives with her family on Moningwanaykaning, Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, in Lake Superior. The Birchbark House chronicles a year in her life and the life of her family: from sibling rivalry to sibling cooperation; from dangerous animals to friendly ones; from harvesting corn and wild rice to stocking winter stores to making maple sugar; from living in a birchbark house in the summer, moving to a cedar cabin in the winter, and back again; from feast to famine, from joy and wonder to illness and grief. It was partly inspired by family research done by Erdrich's mother and sister—they have ancestors who lived on Moningwanaykaning in the 1800s—and the series as a whole is, in Erdrich's words, "an attempt to retrace my own family's story".
I finished this book a few days ago, and I haven't been able to stop talking about it since. I told Josh allllll about it yesterday morning, and when he swung by the library that afternoon, he caught me telling a patron pretty much all of the same things.
Josh: THAT IS ALMOST LITERALLY EXACTLY WHAT YOU WERE SAYING WHEN I LEFT THE HOUSE THIS MORNING.
Me: I KNOW, I CAN'T STOP. SHUSH.
Patron: *laughing* *immediately checks out our copy*
I also read it in one sitting—I was so engrossed that even as I was sobbing my eyes out, I kept reading while I walked to the bathroom to grab the box of Kleenex to bring back to the couch with me.
It's a book that often gets recommended as A Native Answer to Little House on the Prairie, and that's an entirely understandable association—not only is it set around the same time, in the same part of the country, but it also has similar pacing. Like the Wilder books, it has a strong focus on family and on the details of how people DID things in that specific era and that specific place and within that specific culture: growing and harvesting and foraging food, preparing meals, what people did for entertainment and to pass the time, how they made everything from toys to tools to clothing to shelter. But, of course, as it centers an Ojibwa family, it also looks at the effects that European colonization had on the real people, real families, real children who were already here, who had already been here for centuries:
"Chimookoman," said Fishtail, in a growling tone of indignation. The word meant, "big knife," and it was used to describe the non-Indian, or white people, who were traveling in larger numbers than ever to Ojibwa land and setting down their cabins, forts, barns, gardens, pastures, fences, fur-trading posts, churches, and mission schools. LaPointe was becoming more chimookoman every day, and there was talk of sending the Anishinabeg to the west. (76-77)
While that darkness hangs over everything—and has a very concrete impact over the course of the book when the community is ravaged by smallpox—and while some readers will bring their own knowledge about the horrors that lie ahead, for the most part, this is a story about family, about siblings, about figuring out your own strengths, who you are, the kind of life you want to lead and person you want to be.
The sibling relationships are FANTASTIC, complicated and impossible and wonderfully, illogically REAL:
Yet the worst of it was this: her sister was usually on her side, helping her plan tricks on the other children in the village or gathering new ferns or snaring rabbits, visiting the grave houses looking for sugar or food left for the spirits, tossing off her clothes to swim with her. And to have her older sister laugh at her hurt Omakayas so much inside that she both wanted Angeline to smile in surprise, to be proud, to envy her, and to feel rotten and be sorry forever. (25-26)
At times, Omakayas is in awe of her sister; at others, she thinks she is The Worst. Her younger brother, Pinch, drives her BANANAS, but she can also appreciate his charisma and charm. Well, SOMETIMES. She adores her baby brother at all times, ditto her grandmother and her parents. She's a careful observer, even noting the differences in the general atmosphere when her father's away working versus when he's home, and even with the occasional tense moment—because what family doesn't have the occasional tense moment?—overall, there's such a sense of love and comfort and trust and support:
Her mother's and father's makazins always had a certain way of turning toward each other, Omakayas thought. Deydey's makazins were carefully made by Mama, and sometimes worn to shreds before he got home. Soft and open, they seemed relieved to flop inside the door and nestle into the safe embrace of Mama's pair. Her makazins protected Deydey's used-up ones, nuzzled them together, and seemed to be watching over and soothing away the many dangers of his footsteps. (48-49)
As I mentioned above, YES, this is, at times, a crying book. But, at times, it's also a laughing book. Because life generally involves both of those things and everything in between. This book is the best sort of historical fiction, in that it makes the people and the place and the time real, but that it also solidly connects them—and through them, the reader—to history:
Like Andeg, she couldn't help being just who she was. Omakayas, in this skin, in this place, in this time. Nobody else. No matter what, she wouldn't ever be another person or really know the thoughts of anyone but her own self. She closed her eyes. For a moment, she felt as though she were falling from a great height, plunging through air and blackness, tumbling down with nothing to catch at. With a start of fear, she opened her eyes and felt herself touch down right where she was, in her own body, here. (220)
Great historical fiction makes the past feel immediate and personal. But in connecting us directly to the past, it can also feel overarching and huge and almost overwhelming. That overwhelming feeling is a reminder that, in looking at history, every single list of numbers of people killed in battle, or who marched in a protest, or ran in a race or was part of a babysitter's union or sold lemonade or built a birchbark house with her family was a REAL PERSON, with thoughts and feelings and wants and needs and friends and pet peeves and favorite foods and public joys and private sorrows. Every single person throughout history, remembered or not, has a story.
...I seem to have gotten a little off-track here. What I'm trying to say is this: The Birchbark House is EXACTLY what I'm talking about when I talk about when I say 'great historical fiction'.