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)

The Round House, by Louise Erdrich

This is an excellent novel, not least because it has a straight through-line, from a horrible rape to the pursuit of the rapist. It certainly deserved the 2012 National Book Award.

And never have I encountered an Erdrich work that moved in such a straight line to its finale. There are few sidetracks, as we follow 13-year-old Joe and his three friends as they seek to learn the identity of the rapist, and then decide on their own kind of justice.

The rape victim is Joe’s mother, and his determination to seek justice grows as he sees her in shock, confining herself to her room, neither eating nor talking. The boys turn detective after learning the crime occurred near the Round House, a site of past Indian ceremonies on their reservation’s border in North Dakota. Since it is not clear which legal authority has jurisdiction over that site, and since the white men’s legal system is not that interested in tracking down a white perpetrator, anyway, Joe grows determined to find the man himself, and administer Indian justice.

But matters are complicated by Joe’s uncertain conscience as he plans his revenge. His father is a judge, and Joe has been trained to respect the law. Moreover, he and his three friends are nominal Catholics, and they have been bred never to resort to evil themselves.

Their investigation is sidetracked at first when the boys begin an amusing Huck Finn type scrutiny of a new local priest—and discover he is a seriously wounded vet who could not rape anyone. Later, their youthful naïveté increases as this priest chases Cappy all over town after Cappy confesses his desecration of the church with his girlfriend.

Cappy, who is more mature and the leader of the group, is Joe’s best friend. The other friends are Zack and Angus, who serve more as loyal followers. Although Joe himself heads their investigation, he still looks up to Cappy. Overall, the four boys exist more as a group, while Cappy and Joe exist as individuals.

The sense of Indian justice is enhanced by a legendary tale told in his sleep by an old Indian, Joe’s grandfather Mooshum. It is about a young boy and his escape from men who see his mother as an evil “wiindigo.” And its telling achieves two effects. First, it enhances the Indian atmosphere. But it also provides an indirect inspiration for Joe’s own pursuit of justice. For in introducing the idea of an Indian evil spirit that can take over one human body, which then devour other humans, it suggests to Joe the justice in killing an evil one to prevent further evil.

Note that after a few weeks, Joe’s mother does recover and seems to return to being normal. But this does not change Joe from seeking  retribution. He still wants justice to be done, and is determined to make it happen, mostly because the authorities are not yet willing to do so.

It is the details of the boys’ pursuit that keeps the reader interested. First of all, they are boys, and are continually entertaining themselves. With their bikes, their discussions of Star Wars, their pursuit of food, their skinny dipping, their awareness of sex (exposed to the grandmothers bragging about their men, and to Sonya’s awesome breasts). But they are not afraid to confront their neighbors for news. Indeed, these neighbors come alive, from Joe’s extended family, such as Clarence and Uncle Whitey, to various townspeople. There is Linda, for example, adopted sister of the suspect. We hear her life story, but it is less a diversion than a divulging of the background of the suspect.

This is also a coming of age novel. Joe is first introduced to reality through the vulnerability of his mother. But even more significant is his understanding of the professional limitations of his father, the judge.

That a judge who is an Indian on an Indian reservation in 1988 may deal with petty crimes, drunkenness or stealing, but his hands are tied when dealing with major crimes, especially when they often involve non-Indians.

This realization is what turns Joe toward administering his own justice, but it also makes him aware of his conscience—and a realization that actions have consequences, that he is no longer living in a kid’s world, that there are others more powerful whom he must deal with. And, finally, he learns at the end that he must live with guilt, with the knowledge of the justice he is responsible for.

The texture of this novel is enriched by three separate value systems. There is the Indian set of values, represented by Mooshum’s tale of the Indians’ belief in evil wiindigoos that devour people, and the right to kill them. There are the Catholic values, based on one’s individual conscience, and, according to the priest, a belief that good can come out of every act of evil. Finally, there are the conflicting set of political values when an Indian commits a crime versus when a white man commits a crime, and whether in Indian territory or in white man’s territory.

To sum up, this is one of Erdich’s most enjoyable novels, precisely because it is told in a straight line from a single viewpoint. And yet it encompasses a crime story, a coming of age story, a political justice story, and an exploration of morality and one’s conscience. It is a deceptively complex work, but one that is held together by Joe’s more mature recollection of the past, when he has become a judge himself.

One wonders why Erdrich used such a different approach from her previous work. Probably because it is centered on one catastrophic event. But perhaps she will now be aware that complexity does not depend on multiple narratives. The issue may then become whether or not her future works will be built around multiple events or a single event. To work, the former requires more social awareness; while the latter requires, as here, a deeper analysis of the inner life. (October, 2013)