Review of the Day: The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
Louise Erdrich writes The Birchbark House. It becomes a National Book Award Finalist. No surprises there. Louise Erdrich writes The Game of Silence. It does slightly better than its predecessor and wins the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction. Very good, but still not surprising. Now the third book in Erdrich’s “Birchbark House books” (surely there’s a better name for them, right?) is present and accounted for. The Porcupine Year picks up where the last book left off without a glitch, hitch, or hiccup. Readers who have never read Erdrich’s books in this series, or who haven’t seen them in a very long time won’t need much help in catching up and understanding Erdrich’s magnificent world. How far will this latest installment in the chronicles of Omakayas and her family go? It remains to be seen. The only thing I can say with certainty is that The Porcupine Year does not disappoint. It gives the series a richness and fullness it might not have had before.
It’s 1852 and 12-year-old Omakayas and her Ojibwe family are traveling west to escape the expansion of the white settlers encroaching on their land. In trying to decide where to go next, the family and their companions must choose a route. At last they decide to go north to be reunited with family there. All too soon the trip turns more perilous than anyone expected. There are other tribes to avoid, lost children to take care of, fires to escape, and a traitor whose actions bring about the death of a beloved character. Still, through it all Omakayas keeps a clear head and a loving heart. An Author’s Note at the end offers additional information on the Ojibwe language and its many dialects. A glossary provides pronunciations and definitions of Ojibwe terms.
How do you recount a story about a people in danger of losing their way of life without making the book deeply, deathly, oppressively depressing? Some people would go the opposite direction and try to stuff the book full of false hopes and forced cheer. Credit Erdrich with indulging in none of this. Which is not to say that the book isn’t often funny. As always, she has a sense of humor and what I liked most about The Porcupine Year was how that sense of the absurd filters in right from the start. At the beginning of the book Omakayas’s brother Pinch gets a faceful of porcupine quills (the accompanying picture is worth the cover price alone). Then, when he and Omakayas return home to find their family convinced that the kids are dead, the boy has the audacity to suggest that it would be a perfect time for the siblings to cover themselves in flour and pretend that they are ghosts of themselves. That right there sets the tone for the rest of the book. On the one hand you have people dealing with very real issues and grief too huge to name. On the other hand, you have characters that key into the wonderful absurdity of life. You have people like Pinch who aren’t afraid to get a little profane, even when people’s hearts are panting on the floor (to steal a phrase). And an author who can strike that balance and strike it well is an author you should keep a close eye on. You never know where they’re going to lead you next.
What also helps the book along is Erdrich’s sense of how people really are and how they act when they’re under stress. Sometimes you see the best in them, but more often than not you get all their insecurities and concerns on parade for everyone to see. There’s a wonderful moment when Pinch (now Quill) is returned from a capture by his father Deydey that puts his mother’s emotions on perfect display. Look at how Erdrich describes the scene. “Yellow Kettle always confused her affection with anger, and even as she put her head against Deydey’s chest, she gave a furious shake of her hand at Quill and cuffed at him before he darted away.” These little details make the book worth reading. I love the loving insults Omakayas and her brother throw at one another in the morning and how much she misses them when he gets distracted with other matters.
As with the Little House on the Prairie books (a series these books are often compared to), the characters in Erdrich’s world learn and grow. I’m going to be sad indeed when Quill is too old to pull pranks and drive his sister nuts. Or when Two Strike isn’t a headstrong hellion anymore. As with the previous books there’s plenty of hardship, pain, and sorrow to this series. Yet there’s always that tempering of the bleak with hope. The Porcupine Year serves to satisfy old fans and lure in new ones. Wherever Omakayas’s journey takes her, we’ll be poor indeed if we can’t come along. A worthy companion piece.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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