The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich

There are three stories in one in this 2005 novel, of which the first story is the most intriguing. All are interesting, however, and all are built around an old, magic Indian drum. The first story is the most interesting because it focuses on a human story, not the story of that magic drum.

It is narrated by Faye Travers, of Indian descent, who is living with, and continually adjusting, to her mother. She is an estate appraiser in New Hampshire. I found her story the most interesting because she beautifully expresses the uncertainties in her life as well as her appreciation of the pleasures of both nature and human contact. (Those pleasures being augmented by the beautiful style of the author.) Faye becomes especially interesting when she breaks her profession’s rules and steals the drum from an estate she is evaluating. She becomes even more interesting when she feels guilty about the theft, for this compounds an already existing sense of guilt, about what she thinks is a hidden love affair, as well as her responsibility for the death of a sister who fell from a tree when both were children.

Indeed, that sister’s death hangs in her memory throughout this novel. Was she truly responsible? As she struggles with her possible guilt, the reader gradually learns not only more about that fall, but more about the type of person Faye was then, and now is. We also become more aware of the presence of death in this novel, how it hangs over everyone’s actions, especially when innocent lives are lost.

Faye’s uncertainty about the love affair with a local sculptor, Kurt Krahe, brings her particularly alive. She tries to hide it from her mother. When his daughter is tragically killed, as are two other daughters in this novel, she cannot hide her compassion—undoubtedly prompted by the memory of her own sister’s young death—and this helps bring him relief from his pain. But when he will not follow up with a commitment to Faye, she backs off.

The second story begins when Faye returns the drum to its original Indian owners out west. There, Bernard Shaawano, an Ojibwe, relates the second story. It is about how the drum came to be: the result of a passionate adultery, ravenous wolves, treachery, revenge, and a ghostly return from the dead. Whereupon, an Indian mourning ritual and a ghostly presence produces the drum and gives it healing powers. Overall, this is a tale of powerful emotions from the Indian past that scald the page with its intensity, but it does not offer the tender depth that I prefer, of Faye’s uncertainty as she faces life. The novel’s tone, the sensitive style of the writing, also changes with this shift to a more direct male narrator.

The final story is about the returned drum and its impact on a impoverished Indian family of four back in Indian territory. After Ira the mother has left them alone, a blizzard begins, and the three children become marooned when their house accidentally burns down. But Ira loves her two daughters, Shawnee and Alice, and her son Apitchi; and is relieved to learn that the children were saved by following the sound of the drum to the house of Bernard, where they find haven from the storm. Bernard then brings the drum to the hospital, where the son, Apitchi, is ill of pneumonia.

The novel closes with a return to Faye, who is now on the road to resolving the issues that confronted her. Is it because she has found and returned the drum to its rightful society? She wonders. “Salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps, and I am skeptical and slow to act.” We last see her in the local cemetery for children, where we met her on the opening page. She has gone there again to mourn her dead sister.

At the cemetery she is also entranced by the black ravens that seem to soar delightedly above her. Similar ravens have appeared throughout the novel, along with ferocious wolves and, at the end, a powerful bear. All are symbols of the nature she appreciates. The ravens, she also sees, as a symbol of the children buried there. “And isn’t their delight a form of the consciousness we share above, and below the ground and in between, where I stand right here?” They also seem to be a symbol of death, the idea of which has haunted this novel. Just as the wolves have seemed a symbol of the ferocious nature that haunts us, even harms us, yet a nature that is without guilt, even as it changes our lives.

This is another remarkable novel by Erdrich. It blends the humanity of man, the richness of nature, the continuity of culture, and the mystery of the occult. It is not a religious occult as much as a cultural occult. But there is also, perhaps new, an emphasis on nature. That while it can be beautiful, it can also be dangerous. And yet is blameless, even as it can harm us.

Erdrich is often known for her story-telling, which may have been inherited from her Indian culture. While the story-telling here focuses on the occult, it is an occult that operates only in earthly terms. And is external to the characters. Whereas, I am drawn to interiors, in this case the internal conscience of Faye, as she confronts love and guilt, along with the beauty of being alive.

Faye is that rarity, a middle-aged hero who is still seeking happiness, and whose emotional loneliness is easy for the reader to relate to—not least because of the sensitivities of the author. We understand the emptiness of Faye’s life, even as she herself appreciates the richness of life, of nature, around her.

The meaning of this novel lies, for me, in Faye’s life, not in the mysterious powers of the drum. I am often moved by spiritual content, but in this case the spiritual is linked to earthly lives rather than to the life of the spirit, and to human aspirations. Some might criticize that here it is about the Indian spirit, but this novel is less about the Indian culture than it is also about the human struggle for fulfillment.

Erdrich continues to be an author I admire. With each novel, she tackles the human predicament in the context of human frailty, cultural conflict, and man’s spiritual longing. (November, 2016)

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