Louise Erdrich pours heart and soul into this powerful, sensitive portrait of the final months of a destructive marriage.
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For his part, Gil craves Irene’s love and cannot live without trying to repossess it. And he has his own label to deal with, having been pigeonholed as a “native American painter.” “Don’t paint Indians. The subject wins. A Native painter himself had said this. You’ll never be an artist. You’ll be an American Indian artist.” And so, Gil, because he paints his wife, is a “painter of the American West, even though he lived in Minneapolis.”Skip to next paragraph
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As “Shadow Tag” progresses, Irene struggles against inertia and alcoholism to free herself from her “iconic marriage,” while controlling Gil fights to breathe life back into it– no matter whom he hurts in the process. Huddled at ground zero between the two trenches are their three children.
Despite the shouting and bruises, they both somehow believe they’ve protected the children from any permanent damage. Meanwhile, 6-year-old Stoney draws portraits of his mother with a wineglass as an extension of her hand and carries a stuffed lion for protection. (After an especially bad fight, he shows up at his older brother’s door with the lion, “plus a bear, a moose, and an orange chicken.”) Riel, their 10-year-old daughter, looks for survival pointers from her mother’s biographies of 19th-century native Americans and keeps granola bars and water bottles ready in an old Barbie workout bag, in case of terrorist attack. Florian, a teenage math genius, lets his younger siblings sleep in his room and sneaks bottles of his mother’s wine.
If the kids aren’t affecting enough for you, then there are the family pets. Even the dogs are always on guard. “Irene thought they had gravitas. Weighty demeanors. She thought of them as diplomats. She had noticed that when Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention.”
Erdrich’s characterizations in “Shadow Tag” are marvels of both economy and compassion. She doesn’t turn possessive Gil or passive Irene into bad guys, instead laying out what makes them fully human without flinching from the damage they do. It may be tempting to read parallels into Erdrich’s own “iconic marriage,” to poet and writer Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in 1997. But “Shadow Tag” doesn’t feel like a roman à clef, and it would be doing a disservice to limit what Erdrich has accomplished here by labeling it as such.
“Shadow Tag” resonates with an almost unbelievable power. Where some tragedies are coldly bleak, as if the novelist couldn’t put his characters through so much if he let himself care about them, “Shadow Tag” is just the opposite. It wouldn’t be able to break a reader’s heart so thoroughly if Erdrich hadn’t invested it with so much of her own.
Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.