I became acquainted with Louise Erdrich’s work a few years ago but until now had only read her short stories. Although I loved and admired the writing in all of her shorter pieces as soon as I read them, I certainly never realized how much I was missing by not having read one of her novels. But no more!The Painted Drum opens with an elegantly described confusion as Faye, its (arguably) main character, wavers indecisively above the smallest of decisions…
I am lost in my thoughts and pause too long where the cemetery road meets the two-lane highway. This distraction seems partly age, but there is more too, I think. These days I consider and reconsider the slightest of choices, as if one might bring me happiness and the other despair. There is no right way. No true path. The more familiar the road, the easier I’m lost.
Faye is an expansive narrator, more than willing to share her uncertainty and her imperfections, to share her life on the small road where she lives with her mother, a road she describes as…a thing of inscrutable loops and half-finished question marks…there is order, but the pattern is continually complicated by the wilds of occurrence. The story surfaces here, snarls there, as people live their disorder to its completion. In this short phrase, Erdrich lays the map of her novel right before us – a messy tangle of overlapping lives, each person bound up beneath some unhappiness or another.
The novel begins with the unmanageable knot of the present –the mire of Faye’s memories and her sorrow, the confusion of her intimate relationship with a neighbor, the dysfunction of the little town around her. As the title suggests the focal point of this interweaving finally leads to a certain drum – found by Faye (who is a scavenger of other people’s lives like the raven’s she so lovingly describes – an estate agent brought in to clean up, apprise and distribute the material remains of the deceased) who grasps its significance right away because of her own connections with the Ojibwe community. For Faye the drum is a catalyst, an instrument that works backwards on her, making her beat out the memories of her childhood, beat back the decisions she’s taken through nothing more than stubborn indecision.
Like the drum’s work on Faye, the novel then steps backward to tell the story of the drum’s creation, a story that spans several generations and moves along a continuum from passion and love to betrayal and grief. Lives are broken, becoming hard, worn-out things until finally, an unlikely candidate for the re-discovery of courage appears and the hard work of repair can begin. The drum is, as well as becomes, an instrument of healing, as though the process its maker underwent during its creation was transferred to the object itself.
The novel’s third section moves back toward the future but not to Faye as I was expecting. Instead the drum becomes a character in itself, not quite an animate object but one whose significance (or spirit) must be re-discovered. It is almost as if the drum must find itself in order to fulfill its original vocation. This last section tells the story of a small family come upon hard times and how the drum manages to come home both to itself and the community that created it.
Erdrich does, however, finally go back to Faye. Which is a necessary return in order to answer the questions asked by that character’s inscrutable loops and half–finished question marks. Faye’s voice was by far the most compelling for me and I’ll just finish up here with a beautiful passage from her about coyotes:
Elsie hears them first, wavering above the Bach, and punches the pause button on the CD player’s remote control. If the howl persists we go outside to sit on the back porch and listen. In mid-September, as the nights and mornings are growing crisp and cool and the deer are retreating from the roads and orchards into the densest brush they can find, it seems to us that the music of the coydogs, as they are mistakenly called, is the music of all the broken and hunted creatures who survive and persist and will not be eliminated. For there they are, along with the ravens, destroyed and returned.