Fans of The Birchbark House have eagerly awaited the second installment in Louise Erdrich's cycle of novels about the young Ojibwe girl Omakayas and her life on Lake Superior. Those who read The Game of Silence will discover it has been worth the wait.
On a summer day in 1849, six canoes arrive at Omakayas' village fleeing the Bwaanags the Dakota and Lakota people who had wiped out their village. Soon they hear that the president of the chimookomanag, or white people, has issued a removal order, requiring the Ojibwe to move west to make room for white settlers.
But the West is the home of the Bwaanag, so they are caught between two packs of wolves. While the children play the game of silence, where the one to remain silent longest wins a prize, adults use the silence to meet and ponder a course of action. Wondering if they have offended the white people, they decide to send runners out in four directions to investigate. In the meantime, village life goes on and is lovingly portrayed in Erdrich's rich prose, the middle section of the novel an ode to a place and a way of life. Canoe making, ricing, sugaring, hunting, making clothes, storytelling, snowball fights, and sledding are part and parcel of this way of life, but if the telling is Erdrich's labor of love, it is no idealized version of Native American culture. There's an annoying little brother, a testy cousin, a well-meaning priest who may be a stealer of souls, and various injuries, near-tragedies and losses. When the travelers return with the news that, indeed, they will have to move west, the home held so dear by Omakayas is to be lost. But as the novel ends with the beginnings of a journey, nine-year-old Omakayas has grown wiser, seeing now that this trek holds danger but also adventure and possibility. If the story has been framed by the ill-fated journey in four directions, so too has it been framed by the game of silence. Only now it is a game of life and death, silence being a necessity to keep them alive as they travel through enemy territories.