Return of the native's drum

In Louise Erdrich's new novel, the repatriation of an instrument becomes an act of healing

I was fortunate enough to grow up in a town with a wise and kindly children's librarian. Mrs. Renwick seemed to have read every book ever written on several continents and always knew which one to press into my hands.

Often as she did so she would offer me background. "She writes wonderful books about horses. You should start with this one," she said handing me my first Marguerite Henry. "This is quite different from 'The Secret Garden,' " she explained as she added "Sara Crewe" to my stack.

But sometimes she would just slide a book across the desk saying, "This is for you." That meant that my reading pleasure would require no introduction.

Mrs. Renwick isn't here anymore but if she were she might well present The Painted Drum just that way.

Some readers will approach this book already knowing quite a lot about Louise Erdrich, her four daughters, her native American heritage, and her rich catalog of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and children's books. Others may pick it up without knowing a thing.

It won't matter. This is simply a good book. You can enjoy it as one more piece of the Erdrich canon, or you can just plain enjoy it. Longtime readers of Erdrich are unlikely to rank it among her very best, but it nonetheless bears the marks of her mastery as a writer: neatly etched characters, finely calibrated prose, and flashes of wisdom and wit throughout.

The story begins in New Hampshire, in a children's cemetery. (The book is threaded throughout with tales of the loss of - or the fear of the loss of - a child or young sibling, but the meaning of this particular cemetery does not become clear until the novel's last pages.)

Faye Travers is in her car, poised at the cemetery's exit, wondering whether to turn right or left. Like the other characters in this book, Faye is a survivor.

Now in her 50s, she has weathered loss and sorrow in her life, finally settling into calm, ordered domesticity with her mother, Elsie. They have a business together doing estate appraisals.

Faye works hard at maintaining a wry, detached personna. "The more I come to know people, the better I like ravens, " she tells the reader. "Is it proper for the young to be so disappointing?" she wonders about her lover's sullen college student daughter.

But her reserve is pierced the day she finds a huge native American drum in a client's attic. Realizing that the client won't miss it, she takes it.

This is not a theft prompted by greed. Faye and Elsie are descended from an Ojibwe Indian and know enough about native culture to understand the value native people would assign to a drum as large and beautifully made as this one. They sense that a tragic story must have prompted its sale to a white trader. Faye decides she has no choice but to return it to its creator.

In the second part of the novel the narration passes to Bernard Shaawano, the grandson of the drum's maker, who lives where the drum originated in North Dakota. Through Shaawano we learn the story of his grandfather's life and how he made the drum to assuage his savage grief over the loss of his beloved little daughter.

The story then moves on to the tale of three young children and the impact the drum has on their lives. This third section of the novel is the least successful, with an ending that feels rushed and not quite convincing. Yet it is still moving as the story's trajectory becomes apparent and the characters are allowed more triumph than we might have dared to hope.

In the end, the story becomes a fable of redemption and even of joy, as the novel's characters discover how to channel their grief, with the drum as a metaphor for the ways in which tragedy can be forged into shapes that work to heal others.

Although less subtle than Erdrich's best work, here too she steps back from answers that are too pat. "Salvation seems a complicated process with many wobbling steps, and I am skeptical and slow to act," thinks Faye, as the narrative returns to her in the book's final pages.

There is searing pain and loss aplenty in this book, but one of Erdrich's strengths as a writer is the way in which she controls emotion, often setting it against a frozen backdrop of cold and snow.

A baby sees her mother commit an awful crime. Wrapped in fur against the cold, the infant gazes at the woman: "The knowledge was there, in the tiny black eyes sharp as bitter stars." Erdrich uses silence as masterfully as she does speech.

She also tempers emotion with wry perspective. A woman driven to infamy by passion cannot have the man she loves. "As women have found since love began," Erdrich tells us dryly, "she found she could live."

This story touches down in territory oft traveled by Erdrich. Readers familiar with her works will recognize characters from the North Dakota native families who populate other of her works. But again, it doesn't really matter. Her themes transcend that terrain.

Native hearts are not the only ones wounded in this novel. Faye's lover Krahe ("last name correctly written with an umlaut, a vampire bite above the a") searches for long German words with which to sum up stages of life and loss.

And Faye herself refuses to accept easy refuge. Perhaps that's why it resonates so pleasingly when she (a woman who utters lines like, "I drive toward the clarity of my bank account") finally admits, "You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth."

Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor.

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