I recently finished a review copy of Louise Erdrich’s soon-to-be-released new novel, The Painted Drum. After having heard that part of Erdrich’s book is set here in New Hampshire, I was curious to see her writerly depiction of my adopted state.
The Painted Drum does indeed open in New Hampshire, in the fictional village of Stiles and Stokes. Faye Travers and her half-Ojibwe mother are antique dealers who make their living appraising local estates, so it is with eager curiosity that Faye inspects the belongings of John Jewett Tatro, a local man rumored to have an impressive collection of antiquities from his days as an agent on North Dakota’s Ojibwe reservation.
As readers of novels such as Love Medicine, Tracks, or The Beet Queen well know, Erdrich is an anthologist’s dream, writing novels whose chapters serve as self-contained short stories. “Revival Road,” the opening chapter of The Painted Drum, is as intricate as a well-crafted brooch, containing within it like jewels the themes of the narrative which is to follow. While giving requisite nods to New Hampshire local flavor–frost heaved roads, springtime blackflies, and seemingly ubiquitous Subarus–Erdrich brings into sharp focus a community that sees more than its share of sorrow but has yet to learn how to deal with tragedy.
Like many New Hampshire towns, Stiles and Stokes is divided between locals and transplants: families who have lived in the area for generations and the typically well-heeled outsiders who are drawn to the state by its colleges and tax-free status. Although she herself is a local, Faye Travers has much in common with cosmopolitan newcomers, including Kurt Krahe, a German stone artisan who is Travers’ neighbor and would-be suitor.
It is from Krahe that Travers learns a German term that proves significant throughout the entire novel: the notion of Zwischenraum, the space between things. Travers herself is a creature of this in-between realm, arbitrating between locals and newcomers in both her professional and personal life. Like a white car wedged between birch trees–an early image that presages later tragedy–Faye is caught between worlds: the New Hampshire world where Native antiquities are to be bought and sold no differently than any other forgotten mementos and the Ojibwe traditions of her mother’s ancestry, which insist that a painted drum she finds among Tatro’s belongings is both magical and deserving of special treatment.
This painted drum of the novel’s title exists in a Zwischenraum all its own. Discovered near the novel’s beginning, the drum’s true history is revealed in the novel’s middle portion, when Ojibwe storyteller Bernard Shaawano recounts how the drum came to be built and how it came to leave North Dakota. Although central to an understanding of the drum’s mystical powers, Shaawano’s story lacks the sharp focus of the novel’s opening. Whereas Faye Travers’ story is rooted in and perpetually returns to the actual world, Shaawano’s mundane life as an orderly at North Dakota hospital fades in the face of the family history he retells. Shaawano himself seems only a minor character, merely a mouthpiece for the traditional tale embodied in the drum. Framed by the mundane lives of Faye in New Hampshire and a North Dakota mother named Ira, Shaawano’s tale is a Zwischenraum fable shrouded in myth and mystery.
In the end, it is Ira and her three children who bring Shaawano’s mythic tale back to the realities of modern-day reservation life. Pinned by poverty, Ira makes some bad decisions as she struggles to raise three children on whatever resources she can scrounge or scam. For the drum to be truly magical, it needs to speak to the present-day realities of Ojibwe such as Ira: instead of remaining in a timeless Zwischenraum, the drum has to shape the future as well as the past. In the end, readers aren’t sure exactly where Travers, Shaawano, Ira and her children are headed, but the promise of the painted drum suggests that there is hope in the future and that long-dead ghosts can eventually be laid to rest.
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