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`The Painted Drum': Erdrich's 10th Novel Possesses Graceful Magic

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"The Painted Drum" by Louise Erdrich; HarperCollins ($25.95)


Loss, insistent and abundant, haunts Louise Erdrich's rich, transfixing novels about the strange, comic and glorious events shaping the lives of the Ojibwe clans of the northern plains. In that lushly imagined world, redemption ultimately perseveres, but tragedy - sparked by bitter winters, the insidious temptation of alcohol, the perfidy of unscrupulous government agents and sometimes just plain bad luck - remains a sturdy thread binding fascinating lives.

In her lyrical, oddly elegant 10th novel, Erdrich examines the aftermath of the most painful sort of loss: the death of a child. Such sorrow shadows each of the families introduced here, and it's only through the magic of a ceremonial drum, crafted of hide and bones and tears, that grief is staunched and hope revived.

"The Painted Drum" is a leaner work than the juicy "The Master Butchers," "Singing Club" or brilliant, busy National Book Award finalist "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse." It lacks the storytelling depth and heft that define those novels. But like the powerful artifact of its title, "The Painted Drum" possesses a sort of graceful magic.

Erdrich is finely attuned to the musical cadence of language and the complicated inner workings of her stoic characters. In her hands words glow like gems, precious as talismans, and they build a sturdy foundation for her vivid characterizations and dazzling descriptions: One man's name is "correctly written with an umlaut, a vampire bite above the "a." Slim though it is, this novel adds a vital layer to Erdrich's sprawling, invigorating fiction cycle, which began in 1984 with "Love Medicine."

It is New Hampshire antiquities appraiser Faye Travers who acts as an unlikely spirit guide on this journey. Practical ex-drug addict Faye lives with her mother on slyly named Revival Road. She feels ambivalent about much of her life: her younger sister's death years before; her ambiguous affair with an artist whose daughter has just been killed in an accident; the business she shares with her mother, sorting through the estates of the dead. She does not give much credence to the Ojibwe strain in her heritage, puts no faith in the pull of sentimental objects: "I don't believe old things hold the life of people. How can I? I see the most intimate objects proceed to other hands, indifferent to the love once bestowed."

But then Faye discovers the drum in the attic of descendants of an Indian agent, along with a cradle board, baskets, beadwork, valuable artifacts that do not belong in the home of a white man. Immediately, irrevocably Faye's vision changes. Without pausing to consider the consequences, she steals the drum. "I wouldn't have done it," she reasons, "unless it was on some level "right."

"The Painted Drum" dips back in time then, as Faye and her mother take the drum to the Ojibwe reservation their ancestor left years before, hoping to return it to its rightful place. Erdrich fans will note that the rebel Faye shares a history with the most mysterious and riveting of all her characters, the formidable Fleur Pillager, who plays a crucial role in the author's last novel, "Four Souls," as well as in the earlier "Tracks.")

The story moves on to Bernard Shaawano, who knows the drum's history. In his hair-raising narrative, a sister is devoured by wolves, women and men fall prey to ravaging spells of love and revenge, ghosts squeeze into homes through westward-facing doors. Magical realism is familiar and comfortable turf for Erdrich, and her deft otherworldly elements sketch out the drum's purpose and place in the world, something Bernard's neighbor Chook understands better than anyone else:

"That old Mr. Bush sent John's brother here off to the Desert Storm, and he breathed something that upset his system and now maybe it's killing him. But he never got a medal for that. Anyway, what I'm telling you is you wear down these sorrows using what you have, what comes to hand. You talk them over, you live them through, you don't let them sit inside. See, that's what the drum was good for. Letting those sorrows out, into the open, where those songs could bear them away."

An indelible vision: a lifetime of sorrows floating away to the heartbeat of a drum. That's the beauty of "The Painted Drum," of all Erdrich's books: The stunning imagery lingers just as healing takes root in the hearts of her unforgettable characters.

"Who can say where we'll find our rescue?" Faye wonders. Erdrich's stories remind us to nurture the hope that some sort of rescue will be found.


(c) 2005, The Miami Herald. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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