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Hearing a haunting drum beat
Louise Erdrich's masterful storytelling shines once again in her 11th novel, The Painted Drum, in which she weaves together three stories, all connected by the mystical power of a long-lost Ojibwe drum. In the opening story, the drum is found by Faye Travers, an estate appraiser in the small New Hampshire town where she lives with her mother Elsie, whose own mother was Ojibwe. Elsie tells Faye that drums are sacred, and "more alive than a set of human bones." They feel compelled to return the drum to the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, as if they were somehow told to do so by a previous owner, or perhaps by the drum itself.
Here Erdrich shifts to a different time and place as she relates the story of Anaquot, a Native woman living on the reservation several generations earlier. Torn between her lover and her three children, she leaves her husband and son and takes off in winter. She is forced to sacrifice her older daughter to the wolves while saving herself and her lover's baby, Fleur Pillager, a name familiar to readers of Erdrich's earlier novels, including Tracks (1988) and last year's Four Souls. Years later, Anaqout's husband, still grieving for his lost daughter, is directed by her spirit to construct a drum from cedar logs. He lovingly makes the drum, encasing his daughter's bones inside; later his sonwhom Anaquot had left behindsells the drum for rum and beer to an Indian agent, who takes it to New Hampshire.
Erdrich adroitly leaps from the drum's past to its present in the third story, a sad tale of a mother of three on the same reservation, who struggles to provide food for her children, and nearly loses all three in a snowstormbut for the haunting drum beats which lead them to shelter. Erdrich's continuing saga of members of this Ojibwe reservation seamlessly blends unforgettable characters with reverence for the world of nature, and the traditional, sometimes mystical, beliefs of her own Native heritage, making The Painted Drum one of her finest offerings to date.
Deborah Donovan writes from Cincinnati and La Veta, Colorado.