New Book by Louise Erdrich Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

Oprn Drdsmr: Kid Lit Musings and Review by Cheli Mennella

Chickadee
New Book Continues the Story of An Ojibwe Family

open sesameIt is 1866. Chickadee and his twin brother, Makoons, have been together every day since they were born. Eight years old and living with their family in a birchbark house in the remote woods near Lake Superior, the brothers must endure a brutal separation when Chickadee is kidnapped by members of his own tribe and taken far from home.

The story, named for the main character, intertwines Chickadee’s escape from his captors and his family’s search for him as they journey from their north woods home to the strange flatland of the Great Plains.

Author, Louise Erdrich, weaves a beautifully written story that portrays a family’s love and their willingness to risk everything for each other against a backdrop of 19th century Ojibwe life.

Chickadee is the fourth book in The Birchbark House series, which will eventually chronicle 100 years in the life of Omakayas, Chickadee’s mother. The series started when Omakayas was just a young girl in The Birchbark House (Hyperion, 1999), a National Book Award finalist, and was followed by The Game of Silence (Harper Collins, 2005), winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction, and The Porcupine Year (Harper Collins, 2008). Chickadee starts a new branch of Omakayas’ story, with the focus of this book moving away from her and toward her son.

Steeped in detail and authenticity, with Ojibwe words knit into the narrative, and glossary and pronunciation guide in back to help readers navigate through the Ojibwe language, Chickadee displays Erdrich’s mastery of historical fiction. And her delicacy and sensitivity with issues of separation and loss, sadness and fear, joy and faith, are expressed in the characters’ struggles and triumphs.

And what a terrific cast of characters Erdrich has assembled. The multi-generational family members have very distinct personas, from the gentle Omakayas to the fearsome huntress Two Strike, and when woven together form rich and dynamic relationships.

Chickadee is an especially likable character. He is earnest and brave, and though he is at first disheartened with his namesake, a tiny bird without claws or teeth, Chickadee comes to know the truth of what his great-grandmother, Nokomis, assures him – that chickadees are small but powerful. The birds stay around all winter, can survive on the smallest seeds, take care of their families, and stick together like the Anishinabeg people.

And true to its nature, the tiny bird appears when Chickadee needs him, guiding the boy to food, protecting him from harm, and in a critical moment, even giving Chickadee a song. “I am only the chickadee/Yet small things have great power/I speak the truth,” resonates throughout the book, and gives Chickadee strength and courage when he needs it most. His simple song resonates off the page too, as young readers may relate to feeling small in a big world, or for this adult reader, being human in an immense universe. And yet, like Chickadee’s song insists, we have our own great power.

  • Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper, New York, 2012.  196 pgs. ISBN: 978-0-06-057790-2

Louise Erdrich, is the best selling author of many acclaimed books for adults, including the 2012 National Book Award winner for The Round House, (Harper, 2012) and The Plague of Doves: A Novel (P.S.) (Harper Collins, 2008), a Pulitzer Prize finalist. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Cheli Mennella

Cheli has been involved with creative arts and education for most of her life, and has taught many subjects from art and books to yoga and zoology. But she has a special fondness for kid’s books, and has worked in the field for more than 20 years. She is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Valley Kids and teaches a course for adults in “Writing for Children.” She writes from Colrain, where she lives with her musician-husband, three children, and shelves full of kid’s books.

1 Comment

  1. marymaysharkstavely said,

    November 27, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    Thanks for writing about Chicadee, Cheli. Louise Erdrich is an awesome author! I’ve read most of her adult books and all but Chicadee in the children’s series, The Birchbark House. This series is reminiscent of Little House on the Prarie books. Louise just won the National Book Club award for adult fiction for The Round House; a powerful read. Louise has a good website for her bookstore in Minneapolis: Birchbark Books. If you buy her books from her bookstore she signs them :)


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