Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book Review: The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich

The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich

"Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself that you tasted as many as you could." (pg. 274)

Isn't that a powerful quote? I absolutely love that passage from The Painted Drum, which I would describe as a "quiet novel," and one which showcases Erdrich's stellar writing about Native Americans and their culture.

This is the story of a drum and its history, the events that have taken place in its midst, and the spirits contained within.

"The body of a drum is a container for the spirit, just as if it were flesh and bone. And although love between a man and woman can change and fail, overreach itself, fall prey to suspicions, yet the drum lives on. The drum waits with the patience of unliving things and yet it heals with life itself." pg. 172

On the surface, this doesn't seem to be a blockbuster type of novel, but if you enjoy a multi-layered story spanning the course of years and generations and the interconnections among them, you may enjoy this. Seeing how the characters are interconnected is fascinating, and how history does truly repeat itself. It's told with the lyrical prose that I've come to enjoy in Louise Erdrich's writing, first in her short story collection The Red Convertible (which I reviewed here) and now with The Painted Drum, published in 2005.

Synopsis from Barnes & Noble:
When Faye Travers is called upon to appraise the estate of a family in her small New Hampshire town, she isn't surprised to discover a forgotten cache of valuable Native American artifacts. However, she stops dead in her tracks when she finds in the collection a rare drum, ornamented with symbols she doesn't recognize and dressed in red tassels and a beaded belt and skirt — especially since, without touching the instrument, she hears it sound.

From Faye's discovery, we trace the drum's passage, from the reservation on the northern plains to New Hampshire and back. Through the voice of Bernard Shaawano, an Ojibwe, we hear how his grandfather fashioned the drum after years of mourning his young daughter's death, and how it changes the lives of those whose paths its crosses. And through Faye we hear of her anguished relationship with a local sculptor, who himself mourns the loss of a daughter, and of the life she has made alone with her mother, in the shadow of the death of Faye's sister.

The characters are strong-willed and their actions linger for generations, impacting the ones that come afterwards. There is a resounding sense of loneliness among them, a sense that they are all searching - for love, for healing, for forgiveness.

"All we crave is a simple order. One day and then the next day and the next after that, if we're lucky, to be the same. Grief is chaos. Death or illness throw the world out of whack. The drum's order is the world's order. To proceed with and keep that order is a gesture of desperate hope. Protect us. Save us. Let our minds remain clear of sorrow so that we can simply praise the world. ... When the songs go backward, when they won't stay in place, when the men strike the drum out of time, things should stop. We should ponder the event." (pg. 183)

The Painted Drum, too, is a book to ponder, to read slowly, to savor its prose.

Here's what others had to say (if I missed your review, let me know!)

Book Nut
Bookmarks Magazine, Nov-Dec. 2005 issue
New York Times, 9/11/2005
NPR Interview with Louise Erdrich, on The Painted Drum - 10/2/2005
Washington Post, 9/4/2005


JoAnn said...

You're right - that IS a powerful passage! The Plague of Doves will be one of the next few books I read. My daughter found a signed copy at her college bookstore and gave it to me for Christmas... can't wait.

Creations by Laurel-Rain Snow said...

I've heard a lot about this author, and surprisingly, have never read any of her books!

I need to rectify that!

Thanks for the review.

Yogi♪♪♪ said...

I'm putting this one on my list. It sounds fascinating.