Sunday, March 1, 2009

The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich

The Porcupine Year by Louise Erdrich
Historical Middle Grade Fiction (ages 8-12)
208 pages
Reviewed by Nancy Horner

There was no thinking. All went dark. They were rushing through the night on water they couldn’t navigate, past invisible rocks, between black shores. All they could do was swallow their screams and paddle for their lives. Paddle with a wild strength they never knew they had between them. Omakayas felt the cold breath of the rocks as their canoe swept inches from a jagged edge, a monstrous jutting lip, a pointing finger of rough stone. As she paddled she cried out for the rocks, the asiniig, to guide them. Asked them in her mind and then called out again. They seemed to hear her. Even in the dark, she could see the rocks suddenly, areas of greater density and weight. Now she flew past them with a flick of her paddle.
The Porcupine Year is the third in a series of books about Omakayas, a young Ojibwe girl whose family has been exiled from Madeline Island, their home in Minnesota. I haven’t read the first two books in the series, although I definitely will. In this installment, the family continues its search for a new home. Omakayas is 14 and on the verge of womanhood but still a child in many ways. The book begins with Omakayas and her brother Pinch hunting deer from their canoe. Darkness has fallen and they’re a little too far from camp but both are determined to do their part for the family. As they attempt to navigate the river after accidentally frightening away the deer, they’re unexpectedly caught in a current, pulled into rapids and forced to fight for their lives. What an exciting scene and a great way to begin a book.

The Porcupine Year is compelling, touching, heartbreaking and beautiful. As Erdrich weaves the tale of time spent wandering toward another island where Omakayas’ family hopes to find relatives, Erdrich deftly blends action with quiet everyday life, happiness and laughter with horror and betrayal, death with young life. Omakayas is sometimes heroic and occasionally foolish. Eventually, Omakayas begins to fall in love and the reader understands that Omakayas’ childhood is truly over.

I was particularly amazed at the descriptions of agonizing hunger and weakness when the family was hunkered down for winter, short on food and supplies after losing a brief battle with an unexpected enemy. I felt deeply for the characters and found their tale of survival and their daily challenges imbued with truth and meaning. Her brother’s pet porcupine adds a touch of humor and a bit of dilemma but the main thrust of the story is the sense of everyone doing their part under horrible circumstances in order to survive and reach their destination, a tight and loving little family.

My only difficulty with this book was the quantity of native terms and occasional confusion over the characters. I flipped to the back of the book early on, hoping to find a glossary, and was unable to locate one. As it turned out, there was a glossary and pronunciation guide, but I flipped too close to the end papers, saw the “book notes” and made an irrational assumption that a glossary was absent. Even though most of the native terms seemed to make sense in context, I was never 100% sure I was guessing their meanings, so if you read this series be sure to hunt down that glossary and mark the page, before you get going on the reading.

I loved reading this book and getting to know Omakayas. But, wow, do I wish I’d found that glossary. I had a terrible time trying to figure out the characters and eventually just decided to make some assumptions. With the right amount of information at your fingertips, the book stands beautifully on its own and makes complete sense. The series is probably best read in order, however, because Omakayas is a continuing character and the books are chronological.

Highly recommended for those who love historical fiction, tales of Native Americans, folklore, or beautiful storytelling in general.

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