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"Book Notes" and Study Guide for
The Birchbark House
by Louise Erdrich

Welcome to our page of "book notes" for The Birchbark House - the book we have scheduled to go with our American history curriculum. Below you will find a review, vocabulary, comprehension questions, discussion questions, comments and more to help you get the most out of this book. Please see the topic notes for further activities that go with this book's subject matter such as map work, science, art and more.

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Our Review:

The Birchbark House (by Louise Erdrich) 271 pages


The Birchbark House is a book about an Ojibwa girl, set on an island in 1847. You will learn about the Ojibwa, their customs, beliefs, foods, responses to the rhythm of the seasons and more through young Omakayas and her family. Though white people are beginning to settle nearby, life continues to go on much as it always has. Then a terrible sickness (smallpox) visits the tribe and changes things forever.

There is something refreshing about The Birchbark House in the way the young Omakayas and the other children are portrayed. Both good and ugly feelings (and thoughts) are shared honestly. Omakayas is a likable character and yet you see the parts of her character that most people hide from others. It reminds me, in a way, of the Little House books in which Laura shares her selfish or “grouchy” thoughts. This provides plenty of opportunities to discuss “moral” issues and Biblical values (see notes for the book in the appendix), like when Little Pinch lies or Omakayas justifies her selfishness.

*If you are not comfortable with reading about another culture’s spiritual beliefs to your child you will want to skip The Birchbark House, as these are interwoven throughout the story.

There are plenty of instances of grandmother offering tobacco to the spirits, talk about visions, stories of ghosts and so on. These instances however, can be a good opportunity to reinforce and contrast your own beliefs with your child while promoting an understanding of other cultures.

You will want to be careful though not to cause any confusion in your child by covering these concepts. Some children may feel drawn to experiment with these sorts of things while not understanding the spiritual consequences. If you feel that this might be a danger or concern, then don’t read this book OR skip over these parts on the fly while reading aloud (which I did for a few items). I’m NOT a spiritual advisor, just a Christian mom, so if you have any questions, please consult your liturgical authorities.
Please be prepared for some discussion of these issues if you read this book!

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(*Note: links go to Google images. We find that it really helps to SEE things that might be unfamiliar, in order to help make them stick. Surf at your own risk!)

I explain vocabulary words "on the fly". If your child is reading the book as a reader, you may want to introduce the words before each chapter, or before beginning the book.

I do NOT recommend this book as a reader (please read it aloud instead), if you are a Christian, due to the spiritual aspects. Please read my notes in the review above.

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The Birch Bark House by Louise Erdrich book notes and study guide:

Chapter 1:

Vocabulary:
hummock (remember this word from Night Bird?)
swales (thick swales of swamp grass)
solitary
relays
birch bark
flaw
cattails
awl
willow (point out how the branches are slender and can be bent to make a frame)
pliable
shrewd (ly)
enigmatic

p.7 You may wish to discuss the part where grandmother offers tobacco to the spirits

p.13 Witchfire , pakuks and the like –explain that this would be like some people’s beliefs in ghosts, etc. People often believe certain things when they don’t understand the science behind it (i.e. the thunder beings shaking the earth by walking).

p.14 Isn’t it neat that God made it so that an animals brain is just the right material (and amount) to tan a hide?

Chapter 2 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
isolated
haunch
venison
worried (as in worried the sleeve of her dress)
neutral interest
intimidate
rummaged
translucent
haughty
envy
fern
orphan
skunk cabbage

p.24-25 Talk about how Omakayas is justifying her selfishness!

Talk about what you “should” do if you meet up with a bear after reading a bear safety guide.

Chapter 3 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
(watched her) keenly
sinew
Chickadee
brandished
blithered

p.35-36 Explain how the Native Americans believed in “spirit helpers” and the passage about the bear visit seems to indicate that Omakayas believes she has such a relationship with the bear.

p.38-39 Vision quest –Talk about how this went along with the Indian’s beliefs

p.46 Even though no one saw Omakayas take Neewo out of his cradleboard, who did see? (God) Can omission be a form of lying?

Luke 8:17
" For nothing is hidden that will not become evident, nor anything secret that will not be known and come to light.”

Chapter 4 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary
secure
predictable
britches
redwing blackbirds
forage

p.61-67 Ghost story: Did this “really” happen? Why is Deydey telling the story as if it did? What are the possibilities surrounding this story? (a dream, entertainment, etc.)

p.68-69 You may want to talk about Omakayas’s attitude about work and her ungratefulness for her gift of a hide scraper.

1 Thessalonians 5:18
“in everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.”

Proverbs 18:9
He also who is slack in his work
Is brother to him who destroys.

Note: There is a wonderful CD of music that teaches this verse:
Sing the Word - God Our Provider (by the Harrow Family)

Our family loves the Sing the Word CD's and has memorized quite a bit of scripture through them.

Chapter 5 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary
nettles
lice
infinite (infinitely hungry)

p.75-76 Talk about the custom of smoking a pipe. You may want to discuss the harms of smoking at this point.

p.76 Should children hide and “eavesdrop”?

p.79 “West is where the spirits of the dead walk”. Talk about why people might have a belief like this. What did different people know or think about the sun and the earth before science proved that the Earth travels around the sun? Could it look like the sun was dying or going to sleep each evening in the west? Tie the two thoughts together.  If you have studied the Egyptians you might remember they also had a similar belief.

Why did the Indians have to keep moving West? Where did the white settlers come from? (Take a look at a globe and show how they came over the Atlantic. As more people came, more and more moved further west).

Chapter 6 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
chokecherries
*Please remind your students that they should NOT pick any berries without first consulting you, even if they think they are O.K.
sheaves
betrayed

bumbling
vigilance
scolded
swift
sparse
aroma

p.84-86 What were the consequences of Pinch eating the berries and then lying about it? Talk about how being a false witness hurts other people.
Why are we tempted to lie when we've done something we know is wrong?
What is a better way to handle things? (What should Pinch have done instead?)


Proverbs 19:5

A false witness will not go unpunished, And he who speaks lies will not escape.

Psalm 32:5
I told my sin to you. I did not hide my wrongdoing...and you forgave the guilt of my sins.

James 5:16
Confess therefore your sins one to another, and pray one for another, that ye may be healed.

p.93 Grandmother gave tobacco to the water for a safe crossing. Why would this have no effect (from a Christian standpoint) ? What CAN we do if we desire safety, etc.? (Pray and ask God.)

Chapter 7 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
parched (the corn)
scaffold
cache
ferocity (ferocious)

p.101 Grandma "blesses" the cache and asks the "spirits" for protection.
Who can we ask for protection?

p.103-104 Grandmother talks to Omakayas about the medicines "talking" to her. What are the possibilities of meaning concerning this? Do they really "talk" to her? Could this have to do with the Native American spiritual beliefs, or could it mean that she understood intuitively what to do with them? or ??


Chapter 8 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
intricate
hem
beaver


What are the dangers of "thin" ice? Why must we avoid going out onto ice without supervision and permission?

p.112 (After reading about Fishtail learning to read): How can getting an education help us in our lives? What could happen to you if you didn't know math (you could be cheated). How about if you couldn't read? Why is it an advantage to know things? Why do we bother to learn?

Proverbs 2:2
Make your ear attentive to wisdom, Incline your heart to understanding;

Proverbs 3:13
How blessed is the man who finds wisdom And the man who gains understanding.

Chapter 9 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
crimson
partridge
juniper berries

p.128-129 (Omakayas decided to make moccasins for Neewo)... Why do we do nice things for our family members? What are some things you can do for someone else? (This might be a good time to think up a project to make or do for a sibling, parent, etc.)

p.130 Should we give up when things are hard to do? Why or why not?

p.134-138 Is this story true? Why does Grandmother tell the story as if it really happened?

Proverbs 26:18-19
Like a madman who throws Firebrands, arrows and death,
So is the man who deceives his neighbor, And says, "Was I not joking?"

Should we tell stories as if they are "true" when they are not?

Chapter 10 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:

feeble
*smallpox WARNING: GRAPHIC, view with caution or skip -A couple of my children are very interested in being doctors someday and so are interested in items like this. They are NOT for the squeamish and you will have to judge if the images are acceptable for your child to view or not. Some children may be upset by them.

emerge
vaccine
badgering
concoction
transparent

I have scheduled a science study of germs for this chapter. Please see topic list 3 for more information.

p.153 How did Omakayas help her father by hurting him?

p.155 You may want to discuss the practice of bringing food to a deceased loved one. Why do we as Christians not do that?

Chapter 11 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:

muskrat
exertion
brandish
intently (listened)
acorn

p.164 You may want to play a game of chess today!

p.165 Should we gamble? Is that being a good steward with our money?
Should we "pretend" to be less skilled than we are in order to win or get something in the end?

p.168-170 This section of the book talks about Omakayas having a dream and receiving a spirit helper from the dream (the bear people). Either skip it or talk about the Native American spiritual beliefs and how they differ from ours.
What does a person need to do to be saved? How do we receive the spirit of God?

p.172-175 Here we read a "creation" story. How is it different from the creation we read about in the Bible?
What practical lesson can one take from the muskrat in the story?

p.180-181 What does the Bible say to do with an animal that has caused harm to a person or another animal?

Exodus 21:

28"If an ox gores a man or a woman to death, the ox shall surely be stoned and its flesh shall not be eaten; but the owner of the ox shall go unpunished.
29"If, however, an ox was previously in the habit of goring and its owner has been warned, yet he does not confine it and it kills a man or a woman, the ox shall be stoned and its owner also shall be put to death.
30"If a ransom is demanded of him, then he shall give for the redemption of his life whatever is demanded of him.
31"Whether it gores a son or a daughter, it shall be done to him according to the same rule.
32"If the ox gores a male or female slave, the owner shall give his or her master thirty shekels of silver, and the ox shall be stoned.

p.183 Instead of thanking the deer, who should Deydey have thanked?

Chapter 12 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
reminiscing
bolted (away from the lodge)
carcass
potent
intense

p.202-207 Here we read more about the "voices" from the plants/woods/etc. Either discuss or skip this section.

p.208 What does the Bible say about gossiping?

Proverbs 20:19
He who goes about as a slanderer reveals secrets, Therefore do not associate with a gossip.

p.210 "The old people talked to the young people, teaching them about the way to live as an Anishinable in this world."

Titus 2: 3-5
Older women likewise are to be reverent in their behavior, not malicious gossips nor enslaved to much wine, teaching what is good,
4so that they may encourage the young women to love their husbands, to love their children, 5to be sensible, pure, workers at home, kind, being subject to their own husbands, so that the word of God will not be dishonored.

p.211 Uh-oh Pinch is going to lie again.


Chapter 13 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
intersection
trifle
portentous
commenced
bewilderment

Chapter 14 of The Birchbark House:

Vocabulary:
marrow
forthrightly

fury

p.236 You might want to remind your child about the very first part of the book where a baby is found alone on an island (that baby has grown up to be Omakayas).

The End!

 

 

 

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