What is a summary of The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich?

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Lori Steinbach eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich is a story told in four sections, each one representing a season in one year of a young girl's life. Omakayas (which means "Little Frog") is an seven-year-old girl (eight by the end of the story) who lives with an Ojibway tribe in Minnesota in the mid-1800s. She does not know it, but she is an adopted daughter. She was discovered by hunters, the last survivor of her tribe after a smallpox epidemic, and she was given to Migwam and Yellow Kettle by an old medicine woman. She is much loved by her parents and has an older, beautiful sister named Angeline.

Most of the time Angeline was kind to Omakayas...but there were also times her words were sharp as bee stings, and at those times Omakayas shed tears her sister never knew or probably even cared about, for as very beautiful people sometimes are, Angeline could be just a little coldhearted at times.

The general background for everything that happens in this novel is the tribe; they hunt and gather and work together to ensure that they all survive. There is a lot of storytelling in order to pass down the stories and traditions of the tribal history. The strongest connection in the novel is between Omakayas and her grandmother, Nokomis. They spend many hours together collecting birch bark for the cabin they will live in for the next year.

In the summer, Omakayas is walking home from an errand and first meets two bear cubs and then their mother; she is actually pinned to the ground by the mother but is unhurt. Omakayas now believes these bears are her protectors. The family rejoices when Migwam returns home from a successful hunting trip. He asks his daughters to help keep the birds away from the family's corn, so the girls trap the crows and their family enjoys eating them. One of them is wounded and becomes a family pet. His name is Andeg.

During the fall, of course, Omakayas and her family, along with the other members of the tribe, are getting ready for winter. They harvest and store their winter rice, and they get their cabin ready for the cold winter ahead. 

Winter comes, and Omakayas makes tiny beaded makazins [moccasins] for her little brother. Then an outbreak of smallpox arrives, and every member of the family except for two are sick with the disease. Omakayas and her grandmother are the only ones who can care for everyone, and they work tirelessly to nurse everyone back to health. Unfortunately, Angeline's best friend Ten Snows does not survive the outbreak; neither does Omakayas's little brother, Neewo. Omakayas is crushed at this loss. Food is scarce and the family is worried about surviving through the winter. 

Finally spring arrives, and Omakayas is able to begin her life's calling as a healer with her grandmother is her teacher. Omakayas learns about her life on Spirit Island and her subsequent adoption into this family. She also learns that she did not get smallpox because of her earlier exposure, and she is thankful that she was able to help her family because of that.

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