You know that feeling when you settle into a book and the world fades away? That’s what happened when I snuggled up with Chickadee, the fourth book in Louise Erdrich’s acclaimed Birchbark House series. I had read some of the earlier books but I worried that it had been too long since I spent time with this 19th-century Ojibwe family and their people. That was a wasted worry—like an old friend who comes to visit, Chickadee drew me right back into the story.
Chickadee and his twin brother Makoons live a happy life with their family and neighbors. The only blots on their lives are Babiche and Batiste, the two adult sons of John Zhigaag, the tribe’s mean guy. When grandmother Nokomis ruins the bully’s hat and Makoons takes it one step further by purposely humiliating him, his sons hatch a plan of revenge.
In the middle of the night, Chickadee is stolen by the two oafs and his family begins a journey across the Great Plains to find him. While the thuggish brothers end up bearing more resemblance to the dull giants of fairy tales, and there is little doubt that our little hero will find his family again, Chickadee’s odyssey is a long and difficult one. He is often comforted by the words of his grandmother and namesake bird: “Small things have great power.” The chickadee gives the little boy a song that will summon the bird in case of danger and can also be used to heal people. Little does Chickadee realize how important that song will become.
As Chickadee moves to safety, relying on the kindness of strangers and the love of his Uncle Quill, his twin Makoons sinks into sadness and illness. The tension builds as the Chickadee’s journey is extended by fierce mosquitoes, a flooding river and slow ferries. The reunion, song and all, is sweet and just in time.
Erdrich’s realistic sketches and dandy map add much to this story. I loved flipping back and forth to see what she had depicted on the map and to discover what was to come. This warm family drama in a rich historical setting makes for a special reading experience.