By Louise Erdrich. Harper, 2016. 151 pages. ISBN 978-0-06-057793-3. Click here to purchase.
In this fifth book in the Birchbark House series, Makoons is now reunited with his twin brother Chickadee, and growing stronger. On the Great Plains of the Dakota Territory in 1866, they are eager to join in the buffalo hunts, though mostly they get into mischief while avoiding work. Fishing one day, they’re the first to spot a buffalo herd, and follow the preparations carefully, try to join the hunt but are thwarted, and help in the work following as the meat, organs, and hide are prepared. Sneaking off for a nap, they discover a stranded buffalo calf and adopt it.
Through the perspective of the eight year-old twins, and picking up where Chickadee (2012) leaves off, the reader continues to follow closely the daily life of this Ojibwe family and their community. As they are forced west, so are the buffalo, and through the buffalo themselves Makoons and Chickadee learn that “Soon the generous ones will be gone forever.” (p.118)
Erdrich’s naturally evocative prose suffuses the reading experience with precise details of each daily scene, flavored with humor (a running joke is the vain but untalented hunter Gichi Noodin) and propelled forward with expectancy. Nokomis’ tending of her garden, the twins’ raising of the buffalo calf, and even, ultimately, Gichi Noodin’s lessons learned demonstrate, to Makoons and to the reader, how his people’s lives will continue to change.
Like the books that precede it, it is a delightful and much needed addition to children’s historical fiction. A perfect companion book to Chickadee, it offers, at the same time, a more somber counterpoint. At its opening, Makoons shares a vision with his brother:
We will become strong and bring down buffalo. We’ll have horses, we’ll feed our people. All of us will travel into the great grass places, toward the western stars. We will never go back east to our lake, our deep woods. … We will be tested too … We will have to save them … Our family. Only … We cannot save them all. (p.3-4)
At the close of the book, Chickadee reflects on what has come to pass so far, and asks his brother “Was this all? …Your dream. Is it over?” (p.147) His brother only offers silence. A testament to Erdrich’s power as a writer is that this foreboding is laced with threads of hope, strength, and memory, enacted by her telling of the story, and the reader’s listening.
Reviewed by Nina Lindsay