Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Slapin review of Erdrich's THE PORCUPINE YEAR

[Note: This review may not be used elsewhere without written permission of its author, Beverly Slapin. Copyright 2008 by Beverly Slapin. All rights reserved.]

Erdrich, Louise (Ojibwe), The Porcupine Year, b/w illustrations by the author. HarperCollins, 2008, grades 4-up

It is 1852, and Omakayas, the little girl we have come to know and love, is 12 winters old—“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 girl who’d come to know something of her strength and who wanted challenge, and would get it, in the years of her family’s exile from their original home…”

Her little brother, Pinch (soon to be called “Quill”), has determined (all by himself) that the little gaag, the baby porcupine he’s convinced Omakayas not to kill for soup, has been given to him as his “medicine animal.” In this “porcupine year,” as it will come to be known, the ever-encroaching chimookomanag, the white people, have forced the large extended family to embark on a perilous journey away from their beloved home, the Island of the Golden Breasted Woodpecker. As they travel north toward Lac du Bois to reunite with Mama’s sister’s family, there are hard decisions to make, the enemy Bwaanag (Dakota) to avoid, raging fires to escape, lost chimookomanag children to take care of, treachery that leaves them near starvation, and the heroic death of a tough-as-leather old woman whom Omakayas had thought was “unkillable.”

This porcupine year is indeed challenging, and another writer might have mired this book in tragedy and unrelenting sorrow. But Erdrich does not abide maudlin drama: here, children can be silly, parents can overreact, grandparents can allow space to learn, and baby porcupines (especially those destined for soup) can be really, really cute.

Omakayas is a loved and treasured member of her family, growing into a strong young woman with a clear mind and a heart open to all that awaits her. She knows that nothing will ever take the place of her original home, but she will learn to love the new place her family now inhabits: land, culture and community are still intact. The Porcupine Year, as its predecessors, The Birchbark House and The Game of Silence, will resonate with young readers long after the last page has been turned.—Beverly Slapin

Note from Debbie: If you've got a choice, get Erdrich's books from Oyate, a non-profit organization that does a lot of terrific work that benefits all children.