The Birchbark House


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Year Published

Book Review

This book has been reviewed by Thriving Family, a marriage and parenting magazine published by Focus on the Family.

Plot Summary

Seven-year-old Omakayas, a member of the Ojibwa tribe, lives on an island in Lake Superior in 1847. Her family consists of Nokomis (Ojibwa for grandmother), father Deydey, mother Yellow Kettle, big sister Angeline, little brother Pinch and baby Neewo. Deydey works in the fur trade, so he is often traveling. Angeline is wise and beautiful but sometimes unkind to Omakayas. Pinch, the noisy, mischievous little brother, irritates Omakayas. She adores baby Neewo, and sometimes pretends he is her own.

The family spends its summers in a house made of birchbark, harvest time at ricing camp and winters in a cedar log house before harvesting sugar maple at camp in the spring. Nokomis always urges Omakayas to learn the old ways of her tribe and to listen for the spirits in nature. Nokomis hopes that, like her, Omakayas will learn to use the spirits’ power to become a healer. After Omakayas encounters two bear cubs in the woods, Nokomis is convinced the spirits are trying to speak to her granddaughter. An eccentric neighbor named Old Tallow demonstrates a special affinity for Omakayas.

Angeline studies at the mission school to learn English. Angeline’s friend, Ten Snow, is an expert beader and gives Omakayas a treasured gift of beads and thread. Ten Snow’s husband, Fishtail, also studies English at the mission school so the white men won’t be able to cheat him in treaties.

The patterns of life change suddenly for the tribe when a stranger stumbles into their camp and dies of smallpox. Despite their efforts to burn or purify everything, members of Omakayas’ family begin falling ill. Nokomis quarantines the sick, but soon, all but she and Omakayas are battling the illness. Nokomis and Omakayas spend day and night tending to the family as they deal with itching, unconsciousness and bouts of madness. Omakayas is crushed when Neewo dies in her arms. She later learns Angeline’s friend, Ten Snow, has also died.

Old Tallow comes to help with the sick so Omakayas can rest. Although the rest of her family eventually recovers, Omakayas herself becomes sick and weak with grief. Food doesn’t interest her, and she wonders repeatedly if she could have done something to save her brother. Omakayas dreams of a bear spirit woman who promises to help her, and Nokomis encourages her to trust the spirit.

Omakayas finally ventures out of the house. Old Tallow’s dog attacks and bites the girl, and Old Tallow kills the dog. The spirit of the great one-horned deer offers himself to Nokomis in a dream. Deydey goes to hunt the deer, and the family has enough food to heal and survive. Laughing together as a family also helps bring emotional healing. Omakayas sees the bears again. She helps heal Pinch when he burns his foot, confirming that she has a healing gift.

Old Tallow tells Omakayas the truth about her origins. Old Tallow actually rescued a very young Omakayas from an island on which everyone else had died of smallpox. This was how Omakayas was able to nurse her family back to health without getting sick herself. Old Tallow says she now knows Omakayas was sent there to save others. Omakayas begins to heal emotionally as she embraces her past and present.

Christian Beliefs

Angeline and Fishtail attend the mission school. Omakayas thinks about a priest who walked miles in snowshoes to baptize her people, stealing souls from the other mission and the manitous.

Other Belief Systems

Omakayas is encouraged, by Nokomis especially, to learn about and pay attention to the voices of the spirits in nature. Nokomis, Yellow Kettle and Omakayas all pray and present food and tobacco to the spirits (or manitous). After Neewo’s death, Omakayas wonders why the manitous ignored the prayers she, her mother and her grandmother prayed. Natural phenomena, such as thunder and lightning, are attributed to spirit beings. The family also makes offerings to the spirits of animals they kill and eat. Omakayas’ people call the earth Akeeng, their good mother.

When Omakayas is depressed after the smallpox outbreak, Nokomis hopes the girl will search for and find a spirit helper to aid her in recovering the will to live. Omakayas dreams of a bear-spirit woman who says she will help the girl. Nokomis tells Omakayas a story about how the earth began, involving the great Ojibwas teacher, Nanabozho, and animals who retrieved dirt for him to use in creating an earth for them to inhabit.

Authority Roles

Nokomis loves her granddaughter and wants to help her find her place as a healer. Old Tallow acts as an aunt to Omakayas, eventually confessing she rescued the girl and gave her to her current family. Yellow Kettle is sometimes moody but has great love and affection for her children.

Profanity & Violence

Neewo spits up blood before dying of smallpox. Old Tallow kills one of her dogs with an axe after it attacks Omakayas.

Sexual Content


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