How does one even begin to review the writing of Louise Erdrich? Her words resonate with ancient mysteries and intricate complexities which draw me into her characters' lives time and time again. This novel is no exception.
In The Painted Drum we follow the story through the eyes of different people.
Faye Travers risks her moral rectitude and her career as an Estates agent by stealing an incredible Native American drum. It called to her with a single beat and she was overwhelmed by its mystical powers. Her grandmother was an Ojibwe and Faye takes the drum to return it to her tribe, its rightful owners. But before she hands it over, the drum works its magic on her. In a final healing catharsis, she is drawn to talking with her mother Elsie about the childhood death of her sister Netta. The novel concludes with Faye making life changing decisions.
There is also Bernard Shaawano, the grandson of the Ojibwe maker of the drum. He narrates the history of the drum, and we learn about the tragic life of Bernard's ancestor. He made the drum by following the instructions he received from his young daughter who sacrificed herself to save her mother, Anaquot. She came to her father in visions, and Erdrich’s masterful use of language and rhythm take us into the heart of a man’s grief for a daughter he loved so much he could not love the son who still lived.
The final section of the story relates the story of Ira and her three children. I won’t say more as this is the most powerful section of the book and I don’t want to spoil it. But here the drum comes full circle and, back in its rightful place, it throbs with life and hope.
Erdrich has a way of taking a reader deep into the mysteries that surround us: the soul of wolves; the breath of the trees; and the dead who live on in our dreams. Each word, each sentence, has layers of meaning. No matter how mundane the topic - a man mowing a lawn for his lover – everything is intricately linked and woven together, in much the same way that our individual lives are all part of the same fabric of existence. We are one with each other, Erdrich says, and we are one with all of life.
In The Painted Drum, her characters are flawed, but Erdrich does not judge them. Rather she shows them with unsentimental clarity and a deep understanding for the forces which drive people to do what they do. Erdrich's compassion is coupled with her skill and her wonderful imagination. Once again, she has written another masterpiece.