For a book about a kidnapped boy, Chickadee, by Louise Erdrich, is surprisingly funny. I first read Chickadee last year, before I’d read the previous books in the series: The Birchbark House, The Game of Silence, The Porcupine Year. And while Chickadee stands well on its own, it’s even better when read in order.
Omakayas, last seen as a teenager in The Porcupine Year, shows up in Chickadee as the mother of 8-year-old twins. That’s a leap in time of at least 15 years, and quite a gutsy move–but Omakayas was instantly recognizable as the calm, resourceful healer-in-training, and Erdrich smooths over the time gap by inserting a scene where the family tells the story of the twins’ birth. Having read the previous books, I enjoyed catching all the references, whether a sweet homage to Old Tallow, or the familiar story of how Omakayas’ brother Quill got his namesake from the porcupine.
Our main character, though, is Chickadee, who’s kidnapped by a couple of dim-witted twin brothers best described as henchmen (muscular, mean, prone to issuing growling threats). As Chickadee gets spirited away into the frozen prairie, the entire extended family follows to track him down.Despite the grim premise, there’s plenty of humor to lighten the mood, from an awkward encounter with Quill’s wife Margaret–who tries to be hospitable while desperately hoping the family of nine won’t end up invading her house–to the kidnappers, Babiche and Batiste. It doesn’t take long before their threatening demeanor melts away to silliness and affection (clue #1: they sing a food ballad reminiscent of a Redwall song. Clue #2: they fall in love with Omakayas’ cousin Two Strike, who wants nothing more than to chop their heads off). Their quick turn from villains to bumbling fools was a bit hard to swallow, but I appreciated the humor since the rest of Chickadee’s family, and his brother Makoons in particular, spend most of the book in despair.
As for the history part of the book, it’s woven seamlessly into the plot. We meet all kinds of peoples and cultures as the characters wander across the land. Through Chickadee’s journey, we get a primer in the postal system, the fur trade, the presence of missionaries, and the Métis culture. Meanwhile, the rest of his family must learn to survive on the plains, away from the rivers and forests where they’ve lived for generations. Many of the scenes read like slices of life in different communities and cultures, and it was nice to go through them at a leisurely pace, without wars or other epic conflicts. After the previous five Civil War-themed O’Dell winners, I could do with a lot more books without Major Historical Events.