Collection of characters intriguing
Louise Erdrich, the “Turtle Mountain Chippewa” writer, owns and manages a neighborhood store in Minneapolis called BirchBark Books, Herbs, and Native Arts. She says her staff is a “spirited collection of people who believe in the power of good writing, the beauty of handmade art, the strength of Native culture and the importance of small and intimate bookstores.” The characters in Erdrich’s latest novel, “The Painted Drum,” also become a spirited collection of people as she considers the beauty and strength and intimacy of their lives. When I think about the people who work in and shop at small, independent bookstores, people who love books and stories and the tucked-away pleasures of life, it is easy for me to imagine that Erdrich finds much inspiration in the people who are part of her bookstore.
The two main characters of “The Painted Drum” are Faye Travers and Bernard Shaawano. Faye is an antiques appraiser who lives in New Hampshire; Bernard is her distant Ojibwe relative, a hospital maintenance supervisor on an Indian reservation called Hoopdance, somewhere in the plains of the Midwest. A drum connects Faye and Bernard – she who cleans out the houses of dead people to make room for the living – and he the teller of the old stories that keep the living from forgetting the dead. Before she meets Bernard, Faye lives with her mother on Revival Road. Her lover Kurt is one of their neighbors, and so is Davan, a teenage boy who shirks responsibility at every opportunity. Faye’s world begins to change rapidly when Kurt’s daughter Kendra comes home from college for a visit, and becomes involved with Davan.
Kendra and Davan’s romance gives them freedom, which gives another creature its freedom – Davan’s dog.The dog, who escapes a lifetime of neglect and captivity chained to one tree, preys upon local pets and livestock. These events make Faye wonder where her freedom is. Faye thinks her work life and love life adequate – perhaps not what she would have chosen – but something like the dog’s life: limited, repetitive, desperate and confined instead of free. She says, “It is not until the dog meets the school bus, though, mouth open, the sad eye of liquid brown and the hungry eye of crystal blue trained on the doors as they swish open, that the state police become involved.”
The state police find Kendra and Davan in a stolen car and a high-speed chase ensues. Davan hits and kills an old, white man named John Jewett Tatro during the chase; then he loses control of the car on an icy bridge, and he and Kendra are thrown into the river. Faye is hired to sort through Tatro’s estate, where she finds a magnificent ceremonial drum in the attic, and decides to steal it, “wonder[ing] whether others who suddenly commit irrational and criminal acts feel this calm acceptance of an unknown part of themselves.”All of these events and more take place in the first 40 pages of the novel, which is dense with action and rich with reflection.
Faye decides that she will track down the drum’s rightful Native American owner, believing that any number of things might bring her what she is missing – learning more about the history of her family and their culture, changing the locks so that Kurt can no longer come to her in the night or seeing the fugitive dog again. “I have the greatest wish to stare into [the dog’s] eyes, but if I should meet her face-to-face, breathless and heavy muzzled, shining with blood, would the sad eye see me or the hungry eye? Which would set me free?”Will Woolfitt, who writes poems and short stories, works at Weber’s Books and Drawings in Breckenridge where this title can be found.
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