It is Omri’s ninth birthday, and his classmate Patrick gives him a toy Indian. Although Omri is tired of toy plastic figures, he nevertheless thanks Patrick for the gift.
After school, Omri and his family celebrate his birthday at home. His parents give him a skateboard, while his brother Adiel gives him a helmet. Because his allowance has been cut off, Omri’s brother Gillon had to scavenge for Omri’s gift outside. To Omri’s delight, Gillon’s gift turns out to be a small white cupboard with a door. Omri tries out different keys on the door until one of them—an intricate ribboned key—finally turns in the lock. His mother informs him that the key was passed down to her by her grandmother. Before going to bed, Omri locks his toy Indian inside the cupboard.
In the morning, Omri is awakened by noises coming from the cupboard. Upon opening it, he is shocked to find his toy Indian alive, crouched in a corner. When he tries to touch the Indian, the Indian jumps and cuts Omri’s finger. Omri then tries to make conversation with the Indian, who only seems to understand him if he talks slowly and uses simple words. Suddenly, Omri hears his mother approaching his room to wake him up for school. He quickly locks the Indian back in the cupboard and jumps back into bed.
At school, Omri spends his time daydreaming about his toy Indian which has come to life. He lets slip to Patrick that the toy is alive, but Patrick does not believe him.
Omri rushes home after school and opens the cupboard, but to his dismay, the Indian is inanimate once more. He locks the toy back inside and cries for ten minutes. At dinner, he is too upset to eat anything. After kissing him goodnight, Omri’s mother asks him what’s wrong, but he does not answer.
After his mother leaves, Omri hears scratching sounds from inside the cupboard. He is overjoyed to find the Indian alive once more. The Indian commands Omri to give him food, and so Omri tiptoes to the refrigerator and retrieves morsels of food and soda. After his meal, the Indian is shocked to discover that Omri can make the “big light” disappear whenever he wishes. Omri explains to him that it is merely a lamp, powered by electricity. The two then exchange names, and Omri learns that the toy Indian is Little Bear of the Iroquois tribe. Finally, Omri makes Little Bear a teepee out of craft materials, which Little Bear sleeps in.
While Little Bear is asleep, Omri decides to conduct an experiment with the cupboard. He locks a metal Matchbox car inside the cupboard, but it fails to transform into a real car. Omri then locks a plastic teepee inside the cupboard. However, he falls asleep before he has a chance to open the door.
In the morning, Omri is delighted to find that his plastic teepee has transformed into a real one—made out of leather, wood, and animal hide. He deduces that the cupboard’s magic only works on objects made out of plastic. Little Bear refuses to use the “real” teepee, however, as it is decorated with Algonquin symbols—not Iroquois.
Omri informs Little Bear that he is in a house in England, which Little Bear is pleased with, as he fought with the English against the French. He tells Omri that he has collected thirty scalps in his lifetime. This information scares Omri, and he rushes downstairs to find Little Bear food. In his head, he tries to justify Little...
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Bear’s violent life and wonders what to do with him.
After eating, Little Bear asks Omri to make him a gun. However, Omri can only promise him a bow and arrows. He then suggests making Little Bear a horse and uses the cupboard to bring to life one of his toy horses. After considerable effort, Little Bear successfully mounts the horse, but he then complains that Omri’s carpet is not suitable ground for riding. Omri places the two inside a matchbox and brings them outside. Before opening the box, he warns Little Bear to be careful, as there are cars—which he describes as “mountain lions”—outside.
When Omri discovers that his toy Indian has come alive, he makes a split-second decision not to call in his family—as the toy might suddenly disappear or turn inanimate again. He also wishes to keep the marvelous discovery to himself for the time being. Such discretion is common in children’s literature, as adult meddling often drives the “magic” away. As such, the very source of magic can be interpreted to be a childlike innocence and sense of wonder.
As early as chapter 3, Omri decides to test the limits of the cupboard. He grows excited over its “magic,” but Little Bear remains unperturbed, as the concept of magic and spirits is already ingrained in his culture. In fact, he is convinced that Omri is a “Great White Spirit” with much power.
Because Little Bear is an Iroquois Indian, he initially refuses to sleep in a teepee, the traditional living quarters of Plains Indians such as the Lipan Apache and the Comanche. When Omri tries to give him a beautiful teepee he has transformed inside the cupboard, Little Bear declines because the teepee is painted with Algonquin symbols, and if “Little Bear sleep there, Iroquois spirits angry.” Such small details help establish Little Bear’s Native American identity and culture.
Finally, Little Bear’s boasting that he has collected thirty scalps in his lifetime disturbs Omri deeply. It is the first of many instances in which Omri is forced to confront the fact that Little Bear is not merely a toy—he is a human being with his own beliefs and lived experiences.