This month’s book for My Scott O’Dell Award Challenge is the 2006 winner, The Game of Silence by Louise Erdrich.
The Game of Silence is the second book in Erdrich’s Birchbark Series which follows an extended Anishinabe (Ojibwa/Chippewa) family through the 1840s-60s in the Upper Midwest. Erdrich also won the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction in 2013 for Chickadee, the fourth book in the series. In fact, Erdrich is the only author to earn the Scott O’Dell Award twice.
I did things backwards, and I read and blogged about Chickadee first. I’ve since read the rest of the series. The first three Birchbark books focus on Omakayas, a young Anishinabe girl, and Chickadee takes place years later and focuses on Omakayas’s son.
In The Game of Silence, Omakayas, about nine years old, and her family receive word that the American government is planning to push them out of their homeland on Moningwanaykaning (Island of the Golden-Breasted Woodpecker, now known as Madeline Island, WI) into Minnesota, territory of the Bwaanag (the Dakota and Lakota) who are hostile to the Anishinabe. But, first, Omakayas must deal with her pesky little brother, her warrior cousin, an angry boy refugee, and her gift of dreams.
The Sandy Lake Tragedy–Although we don’t see it first-hand through the eyes of Omakayas, The Game of Silence is set into motion by what becomes the Sandy Lake Tragedy. The U.S. government had promised the Anishinabe they could stay on their lands near Lake Superior, and the government promised yearly payments. The payments were usually made on Madeline Island, WI. However, in 1850, the payments were going to be made near Sandy Lake in northern Minnesota Territory, requiring the Anishinabe to travel far from their homes.
From what I understand, the movement of the payment wasn’t predicated by the Wisconsin white people’s desire for the Anishinabe land. It turns out there were government leaders, including Alexander Ramsey, Minnesota territorial governor and superintendent of Indian affairs, who wanted the Anishinabe to be relocated to northern Minnesota. Why?
Because the presence of the Anishinabe presence in Minnesota would bring economic gain to themselves and Minnesota. Anyway, the leaders had convinced President Zachary Taylor to relocate the Anishinabe. When the Anishinabe ignored the relocation order, Ramsey and others made a plan to lure the Anishinabe to Minnesota for the land payments, believing the Anishinabe would be so far from their homeland they would decide to stay.
The payments were to be made late October. When the more than 4,000 Anishinabe arrived, the government payments hadn’t. But, winter and diseases soon arrived. To complicate matters, there wasn’t enough shelter or food, and much of the food there was spoiled. Many Anishinabe died.
When a tiny partial payment finally arrived in early December, the Anishinabe decided if they were going to die, they would do it back in their homeland. However, they had to walk through heavy snow to get home, and hundreds more died on their way. Altogether, more than 400 died that winter.
In 1852, a group of Anishinabe travel to Washington, D.C., to request President Millard Fillmore stop the relocation, and he does order it to stop and requires the payments to be made at Madeline Island. The Anishinabe also had white supporters, especially missionaries and newspaper editors.
One of the Anishinabe leaders who made the trek to D.C. is Chief Buffalo. There is a leader named Buffalo in the beginning of The Game of Silence. I believe he’s the same man.
An Active Protagonist–Omakayas’s life is turned upside down because of the Sandy Lake Tragedy. She cannot change the big situation. Middle grade readers will relate. They are often affected by big, terrible situations they have no control over.
However, the protagonists in middle grade books do exercise personal agency. In fact, their story arcs are often how they realize or decide that they can make certain decisions and act on them. They learn to be proactive and not just reactive.
For example, Omakayas cannot change the situation between the Anishinabe and the U.S. government. But, she does make choices that affect her life and the lives of her family members. And, although she and her family have been victimized, she chooses not to be a victim.
For more information:
Join me Sept. 29 as I blog about the 1999 winner, 40 Acres and Maybe a Mule by Harriet Gillem Robinet.
Have you read any of The Birchbark Series? If so, which one is your favorite?
The book I’m featuring this month is the 2013 winner of the Scott O’Dell Award for Historical Fiction: Chickadee by Louise Erdrich, published by Harper Collins in 2012. Chickadee is the fourth book in Erdrich’s Birchbark House Series and is the second one of Erdrich’s works to be given the O’Dell award. Her first O’Dell award was in 2006 for The Game of Silence, book two in the Birchbark House Series. In fact, Erdrich, who belongs to the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa, is the only author to have won the award twice.
In Chickadee, set in the 1860s, a young Anishinabe (Ojibwe/Chippewa) boy named Chickadee and his family live in a forest near the Lake of the Woods in northern Minnesota. A kidnapping forces the family to leave the forest for the Great Plains, causing them to adapt to new ways of life. And with the help of the bird he is named after, Chickadee discovers his own strength and resourcefulness.
History I learned:
1. The Ojibwe. This was the first book, fiction or non-fiction, I think I’ve read about the Ojibwe, who lived in the woods and lakes regions of northern Minnesota. I found it interesting how the Ojibwe family adapted to life on the prairie. For example, in the woods, they would make containers from birchbark, but on the plains they had to make-do with the one wooden bucket they had. Some of the family members also learned how to ride horses so they could join buffalo hunts on the plains.
2. The Metis. They were of both Ojibwe and French-descent and had their own distinct culture.
3. Ox cart trains. Before the railroads came to the frontier, these caravans of ox carts, mostly driven by Metis, brought furs and other goods down to St. Paul to trade and then take back to Pembina (North Dakota). The carts were very noisy. Here is a link to a website that has a sound clip of just one cart. (Scroll down.) Imagine what a line of 200 carts sounded like.
4. Mosquito swarms. At one point, a giant swarm of mosquitos descend on Chickadee, his Uncle Quill, and the ox cart train. It is not an inconvenience. Both humans and oxen are in great danger of being killed . Many of us have experienced mosquitos, but never in such a degree. That is one of the things from the past that I’m glad is gone.
5. Female Ojibwe hunter. An aunt of Chickadee’s is a hunter and warrior. Pretty cool! I had never heard of a North American Native American woman who did that. Have you? Was it common?
Story/writing lesson I learned:
Sometimes it’s okay to buck the trends and/or conventional wisdom in literature. For example, Chickadee’s family is a loving, functional family. I know there are lots of families like that in stories, especially children’s stories, but there are also an awful lot of dysfunctional families. And there should be, to reflect reality and to give a story it’s conflict. However, it was nice to see a loving family.
Another conventional wisdom rule Erdrich broke was to include lots of Ojibwe vocabulary. It did make the story a little harder to read, but the context around the Ojibwe words explained the meaning, and Erdrich includes a glossary at the end of the book.
Finally, Erdrich switches point of view a lot, even within a chapter, and that’s rarely done in children’s books.
I will eventually read Erdrich’s first O’Dell winner, as well as read all the books in her Birchbark House Series. But, in an attempt to alternate between the newer and older winners, for my next O’Dell Challenge post, on May 27, I will feature the 1985 winner, The Fighting Ground by Avi (Lippincott).
Previous posts about my Scott O’Dell Award Challenge:
Have you read Chickadee? What did you learn?