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The Porcupine Year


The Porcupine Year

In Louise Erdrich's third novel about the joys and sorrows of a family of Ojibwe during the mid-19th century, Omakayas, the heroine of the series, is 12 winters old and feels caught in an in-between place: "She was that creature somewhere between a child and a woman --- a person ready to test her intelligence, her hungers. A dreamer who did not yet know her limits. A hunter, like her brother, who was beginning to possess the knowledge of all that moved and breathed. A friend who did not know how far her love might extend. A daughter who still winced at her mother's commands and who loved and shyly feared her distant father. A girl who'd come to know something of her strength and who wanted challenge, and would get it."

Omakayas's in-betweenness is mirrored by the exile of her family. After being pushed off Lake Superior's Madeline Island (the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker) by the United States government in order to make room for white settlers, Omakayas's family is on the move, hoping to rejoin the rest of their extended family near the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota.

Their journey is fraught with dangers and marked by growing responsibilities for Omakayas and her younger brother, Pinch. The novel opens with an alternating harrowing and humorous episode, which begins with the siblings losing control of their canoe in a rapid-filled river and culminates with Pinch's painful encounter with a porcupine. The boy's connection to the porcupine, which becomes his close companion, also results in his renaming as Quill. With his new name seems to come a new, more mature personality, as Omakayas's bad-mouthed, troublemaking little brother continues to exhibit new thoughtfulness, maturity and skill as a hunter and trapper.

Omakayas also must discover new skills and strengths, particularly in the face of adversity. After a devastating robbery leaves her party without food or supplies just at the start of the long, cold winter, Omakayas is forced to call on all her resources to help her family avoid starvation. Dangers abound --- from the black bears who are just as hungry as the Ojibwe to the bands of Bwaanag (Lakota) whose plain hunting grounds the Ojibwe travel near. By the end of their journey, Omakayas is older, wiser, perhaps a bit sadder after several losses, but also many steps closer to being a woman and not a little girl.

Like Omakayas and her family, THE PORCUPINE YEAR spends time looking backwards --- to the idyllic days on the Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker --- and forward. The emphasis, however, is on the future. The novel drops hints about the girl's spiritual callings and future loves and closes Omakayas's ceremony marking her physical maturity as a woman. Readers will look forward to participating in Omakayas's continued transformation into a woman and a respected, full member of her community.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 14, 2010

The Porcupine Year
by Louise Erdrich

  • Publication Date: September 14, 2010
  • Paperback: 224 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins
  • ISBN-10: 0064410307
  • ISBN-13: 9780064410304