October 31, 2013 by LeVoyageur
As I began writing this review of The Painted Drum by Louise Erdrich my words sounded an awful lot like the words I remember writing for one of my other reviews. Like then, I feel compelled to point out that I don’t read much fiction. I feel overwhelmed by the amount of fiction available, and when I go into a bookstore I am generally unable to choose something, for fear of it not being the “right” one. A whole range of second-guessing comes into play.
But I had a clear idea of what I wanted last time I visited Unabridged Books in Chicago and came away with what some consider Erdrich’s best novel. I’ve spent some time reading other people’s comments about the book and at times I felt like I had read an entirely different novel. And of course, I did.
The Painted Drum is one of those books that will appeal to different people on different levels. I didn’t even find the jacket blurb really reflected in the story; the supposedly central theme seemed oddly misidentified, as if the characters themselves had gotten past the core struggle before the book was written.
The novel, in brief, follows the history of a valuable and spiritually significant Ojibwe drum that found its way into the hands of a mother and daughter team of estate specialists in New England. They too happened to be part Ojibwe and the estate from which it came belonged to descendants of a man who had been an agent on the reservation from which the drum, and the mother, both came.
It is this sense of seeing things from different perspectives that permeates the novel. The daughter Faye sees events differently than her mother Elsie; their artist neighbor sees shape and form where others see raw materials; another neighbor is seen in ways that bely his own reality. How characters see the fateful actions of others get to the heart of the impossibility of truly understanding someone else’s motivations and identity. You can accept or reject them based on your perspective, but you can’t necessary fully understand their point of view.
Characters who seem at first to be marginal figures challenged me to think beyond superficial stereotypes. As the story unfolds, you realize they were not marginal at all, but central in a way that is not predicated on being the focus of all attention. Simply placing the main characters, who came from cultures that I am familiar with on some level (Ojibwe and French Canadian) in a untypical geographic context, forced me to see them (the characters) as inherently marginalized as well, beyond the lifestyles in which they are conceived.
Characters appear repeatedly in deep rural settings, on the edge of civilization. This alone, in contemporary American literature, makes them ‘marginal.’ Characters also appear on the edge of towns, rarely seen until they are needed. Characters emerge as if from history. They reveal a pattern of relationships rooted in the experience of many generations, a real phenomenon that has created a new cultural form in North America.
This new creation is itself both seen and unseen, a product of marginal peoples whose codependence must exist in tandem with a fictional separateness – a fiction maintained for the sake of cultural continuity. Fay Travers and Kit Tatro are opposite sides of the same coin.