Saturday, July 20, 2013

Historical Fiction: THE GAME OF SILENCE, by Louise Erdrich

Erdrich, Louise.  2005. The Game of Silence.  New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers.
ISBN 0-385-32141-4

It is1850 and nine year old Omakayas is a member of the Ojibwe tribe. The tribe hears rumors that the white men, the chimookoman, demand that they move.  While some men from the village go to seek answers, the rest of the village must live out the next year as normally as they can.  Erdrich shows what it was like to grow up as a member of the Ojibwe tribe alongside Lake Superior during that era, from the birchbark houses in summer, to the ricing camps in the fall and the cedar log cabins near a town of white settlers in the winter.  Young Omakayas also has a gift, a gift of prophetic dreams, which she does not want to have, but needs to accept.  This is a sequel, but stands firmly on its own.


As Dr. Vardell says in her book Children’s Literature in Action, “the key to choosing high quality historical fiction is authenticity” (190). The Game of Silence is full of details of the Ojibwe culture, but never overwhelms with long chunks of description.  The protagonist, Omakayas, is “9 winters old” and easy to identify with, because she is so human:  loving her parents, being frustrated with her little brother, feeling jealous of attention when her cousin scores a great kill.  She is very much like a girl today, but she still remains fully Ojibwe, with their beliefs, customs, dress, and language.  We are able to enter into that world easily through Omakayas.

Regarding the plot, there is no sugar-coating in this book about the white man’s treatment of the Native Americans.   The Native Americans were expecting a fair trade with the white people, but were betrayed.  One of the Ojibwe men named Fishtail finally makes it back to report with terrible news.   “For although Fishtail had returned, he spoke of the others who had died of the rotten pork and spoiled provisions.  By the time he finished his report, there was only silence and weeping in the lodge” (234).   Near the end of the book, Fishtail also confirms that the rumors of being told to move by the white men are true.  They are coming.  The Ojibwe people must go.

The plot is slow for much of the book, which may cause some readers to put down the book.  The question of what the chimookoman (white men) will demand is set up and then hovers on the side as then a year’s cycle of living takes place at a rather slow pace before the tensions return when Fishtail returns with the very bad news.  Boys in particular may struggle to stay interested because the main character is a girl, though her little brother makes for a fun, action-oriented character.  I had to read slower than usual, due to the high number of Obikwemowin words in the story and dialogue.  A struggling student might find this book intimidating for that reason.

The star of this novel in many ways is the setting and life as a an Ojibwe tribe member.  The book is framed around the seasons, with each season bringing a move in location and new activities for the reader to learn about.  The entire book builds the setting, but the middle of the book really shows life as an Ojibwe, with incredible details.  For example, “Omakayas was required to pick and clean the cedar with which she would carefully line the earth floor.  It was Pinch’s job to gather the right kind of asiniig for the sweat lodge" (117).  Readers absorb a wealth of knowledge, from what they used in a baby’s diaper (cattail fluff ), to how 9 year olds gutted fish, to the use of mushroom puffballs for medicine. 

Near the end of the book, the theme becomes clear.  All throughout the book, readers floated through the year’s routine with the characters—every year, they did these particular things at each particular location.  But change was coming.  Omakayas knew it and did not want to accept it, which is why she did not want her dreams.  Then the text explicitly states, “Omakayas looked around her at the still beach and listened to the ever talking waves.  All things change, all things change, they said to her.  All things change, even us, even you" (235).  Then their tribe really must move, but she realizes at the end, “Here, after all, was not only danger, but possibility” (248).  It’s a very uplifting theme, given the situation they faced.

The author’s style is simple and direct.  Erdrich uses the Obikwemowin language liberally in the book, often dropped in the middle of an English sentence or dialogue.  There is a glossary in the back, but context clues provide the meaning in the text.  The constant sprinkles of this language provides authenticity to the novel, as do the detailed descriptions of hunting for fish through ice, or how the women used the sweat lodge during winter.  The point of view is from Omakayas, but third person, so readers are a bit distanced from the emotion and experiences described.  This is “a seamless story that just happens to be set in a previous historical time period,”  (Vardell, 191), although this story about the Ojibwe tribe would not be the same if it were moved to any other period in history.  That is appropriate; the historical time period provided the overarching conflict for the story.  The only flaw is that Omakayas’s own personal journey related to her prophetic gift is nearly lost in the short descriptions of daily life.

Black and white drawings are drizzled throughout the book and at the start of each chapter.  The images of the Native Americans and their tools, toys and clothing help readers imagine the story even better.  The drawings help show the intensity of expression on Old Tallow as she rows her canoe, and the sweetness of the puppies when Omakayas gets her own puppy. 

The incredible detail and respect paid to the Ojibwe culture makes stereotyping a non-issue.  A particularly enlightening scene is one in which Dede, the father, helps out the “soul stealer” (the white priest in town). He inwardly chuckles at the idea of believing in this other person’s god if it meant none of his family would be in that heaven with him.  I think the portrayal of a Catholic priest as well-intentioned but terribly misguided helps readers see the opposite perspective from that of Little House on the Prairie and other, older books when it comes to the beliefs of a Native American.  The author shows great respect for traditional Native American beliefs in the interactions with the Soul Stealer, by mentioning details about their religious rites such as offering tobacco on the ground when they are praying, by including the dream gift of Omakayas as part of the plot, and by including ancient legends as well.   The Author’s Note mentions that she is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Ojibwe, which suggests personal knowledge of these traditions and history as well.


"The unadorned narrative, sprinkled with ancient legends, clearly expresses not only the traditions and rituals of the Ojibwe but also their values and religious beliefs. Erdrich's pencil drawings (somewhat reminiscent of the style of Garth Williams's illustrations for the Little House series) capture the mood and spirit of such characters as Pinch, Omakayas's mischievous little brother and noble Old Tallow, who gives Omakayas a precious gift. Like its prequel, this meticulously researched novel offers an even balance of joyful and sorrowful moments while conveying a perspective of America's past that is rarely found in history books. Ages 8-12.”—Publisher’s Weekly  May 30, 2005

"Like its predecessor The Birchbark House (1999), this long-awaited sequel is framed by catastrophe, but the core of the story, which is set in 1850, is white settlers' threats to the traditional Ojibwe way of life. Omakayas is now nine and living at her beautiful island home in Lake Superior. But whites want Ojibwe off the island: Where will they go? In addition to an abundance of details about life through the seasons, Erdrich deals with the wider meaning of family and Omakayas's coming-of-age on a vision quest…. her research into her ancestors revealed the horrifying history and also a culture rich, funny, and warm. In this heartrending novel the sense of what was lost is overwhelming.”—Booklist May 15, 2005

 "Although the story is set on an island in Lake Superior in 1850, readers will identify with the everyday activities of the Ojibwa, from snowball fights to fishing excursions, providing a parallel to their own lives while encouraging an appreciation for one that is very different. The action is somewhat slow, but Erdrich's captivating tale of four seasons portrays a deep appreciation of our environment, our history, and our Native American sisters and brothers.”—School Library Journal, July 1, 2005

"The first book won enormous praise, including a National Book Award nomination, but this novel is even better. The themes are not only more profound, but the episodic structure of the previous novel is also much exceeded by the interweaving plot threads of young love, sibling rivalry, and frustration with gender roles. The threat that the federal government poses to the community is more than just a framing device; it penetrates all the other concerns of the novel, drawing them tightly together. This novel combines all the emotion and joy of The Birchbark House with an impressive deftness of structure.”—Voice of Youth Advocates, Aug 1, 2005


  • Read Little house in the Big Woods and compare the portrayals of settlers and Native American interactions.
  • Read other books about Native American culture 
  • Read The Birchbark House and describe how Omakayas has grown over time.
  • Illustrate one of the scenes
  • Have a guest speaker from a museum come and speak about Native American culture, bringing artifacts.
  • For a school setting, set up links about this tribe and other Native American groups on the library website for further study. 


Historical fiction is my least favorite genre, but I do like learning new things.  (Interestingly, I spent middle school and high school reading historical romances, but I never thought of them as historical fiction.I found the details of this tribe’s life interesting, but slow.  The book moved very slowly.  Honestly, if I were a child, unless I was naturally very interested in Native American history, I would not have completed this book.  There was a short bit about how Pinch made a funny looking lure for fishing and everyone patronized him about it—and then it caught tons of fish.  That would be great if, later on in the story, his funny fishing lure saved their lives by providing necessary fish, but no.  It was never mentioned again.  It was just there for interest, humor, and, I suppose, to make the book seem more authentic.

Works Referenced

Erdrich, Louise.  1999.  The Birchbark House.  New York, NY:  Hyperion Press.

Vardell, Sylvia.  2008.  Children's Literature in Action.  Westport, CT:  Libraries Unlimited.

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