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Chickadee

Review

Chickadee

At the end of THE PORCUPINE YEAR, the last installment of Louise Erdrich's novels that began with THE BIRCHBARK HOUSE, Omakayas was on the verge of becoming a woman, a full member of her Ojibwe tribe. Four years after publication of that volume, Erdrich returns with CHICKADEE, a sequel of sorts that finds Omakayas as a wife and mother, with two young boys of her own.

The Birchbark House novels take place in the mid-19th century in Wisconsin and Minnesota; they've been positioned as alternatives to Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House series, but with a Native American focus. In CHICKADEE, just like the Ingalls family, Omakayas' family is on the move again, from the Lake of the Woods to the unfamiliar landscape of the Great Plains.

"Erdrich has a knack for spinning out anecdotes that will draw in readers, and both her sparkling words and the gentle pencil drawings that accompany them provide a rich, nuanced and extremely inviting portrait of Chickadee's world."

Chickadee is taking a journey separate from his family, and through no desire of his own. After the mischievous boy and his twin, Makoons, pay a trick on a mean old man, the man's sons take revenge by kidnapping Chickadee and turning him into their servant. The boy must take care of the boorish brothers' horses and also cook for them, a disgusting stew made partly of dead mice --- and of their droppings.

But the brothers don't bargain for Chickadee's family's persistence in finding him --- or in Chickadee's own desire for survival and freedom. After Chickadee escapes from the brothers, his adventures and dangers are hardly over, but he is guided by the spirit --- and even the voice --- of his namesake bird, the tiny bird that everyone underestimates.

The migratory nature of Erdrich's novel underscores one of the main cultural and historical differences between her characters and the white settlers they counterbalance. For the Ojibwe, an itinerant existence is not a choice but a necessity, dictated by unfair laws, white aggression, and the resulting pressures that escalate. Erdrich's characters are every bit as sympathetic as Wilder's, if not more so. Confronted with an encroaching snowstorm, the family builds the kind of birchbark shelter to which they're accustomed, only to have it whisked away by a gust of wind: "Such houses were for the woods," she reflects. "They were now people of the Great Plains. But they hadn't learned yet how to live there."

Similarly, when Chickadee (in a section that long-time readers will appreciate) reunites with his Uncle Quill, the two travel to St. Paul and view the mansions that have been immortalized in F. Scott Fitzgerald's novels. But Chickadee has a very different take on their wealth and luxury: "Chickadee could see that they used up forests of trees in making the houses. He could see that they had cut down every tree in sight…. Everything that the Anishinabeg counted on in life, and loved, was going into this hungry city mouth. This mouth, this city, was wide and insatiable. It would never be satisfied…until everything was gone."

Although CHICKADEE offers some important messages, both historical and relevant to today, it's important to mention that the book is also both genuinely suspenseful and extremely funny. Erdrich has a knack for spinning out anecdotes that will draw in readers, and both her sparkling words and the gentle pencil drawings that accompany them provide a rich, nuanced and extremely inviting portrait of Chickadee's world.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 25, 2012

Chickadee
by Louise Erdrich

  • Publication Date: August 21, 2012
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 208 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0060577908
  • ISBN-13: 9780060577902