The Birchbark House series by Louise Erdrich is often compared to the Little House series, held up as a kind of non-racist version of 19th-century life from a Native American point of view (in this case, an Ojibwe family). There are plenty of obvious parallels–the time period, the focus on slice-of-life family dynamics, the semi-regular threat of starvation/disease/winter–but such a comparison belittles Erdrich’s work, which is so much more fun and nuanced than Little House ever was.
One of the things that always bothered me about Little House (in addition to the racism and Pa’s insistence on dragging the family into ever-more-perilous situations to suit his wanderlust) was its inflexibility. The adults were always right. The kids were only good as long as they stayed quiet and obedient. And can we talk about how annoying Mary was, with her holier-than-thou selflessness?
In The Birchbark series, and Makoons (the latest book) in particular, the kids get to develop their own talents and they’re listened to when they have something worthy to contribute. At one point, Makoons and Chickadee–both eight years old–end up saving their community from starvation because of what they’ve learned from their pet buffalo (it’s a long story). Plus, the kids get to have fun. When they play practical jokes on the family, the adults join in and fight back. The best entertainment at the the Ingalls household is when Pa plays the fiddle, which is lovely, but not exactly participatory (it’s all about Pa). Finally, Makoons and the previous book, Chickadee, have buffonish bad guys who are threatening but never too scary, and watching their silly antics is half the fun. Bonus: even the bad guys get redemptive character arcs, so they’re not just cartoonish tools.
So given all that, here are some non-Little House books this series reminds me of:
- The Penderwicks, because Erdrich makes everyday antics exciting, and Makoons’ tight-knit family reminds me of the Penderwicks’ large chaotic household, except instead of a dog and a cat, they have a pet buffalo and lamb.
- Five Children on the Western Front: for balancing lighthearted humor with a sense of impending doom. In Western Front, the reader’s knowledge of World War I’s death toll creates a sense of slow dread, even as the main characters are having magical adventures. Similarly, it’s eerie reading about Makoons’ thriving family when you know what they will likely face in the future. It’s already started for them, with deaths from disease, forced displacement, etc, and we know worse will come, as indicated in Makoons’ prophetic dreams. Since Erdrich has several more books planned in the series, we can expect a darker turn, though I hope the sequels will keep some of the lightheartedness that makes them so great.
- Bo at Ballard Creek: a series that can be accurately described as Little-House-in Alaska-but-with-diverse-characters-and-way-more-fun. Bo’s quirky family, which includes neighbors from all over town, reminds me of Makoons’ larger community, and how everyone works, mourns and celebrates together to survive in a harsh environment.
- Gone Crazy in Alabama: for the inter-generational family dynamics, and all the prickliness and love that comes from living with a large extended family.