The Painted Drum, Louise Erdrich

The Painted Drum

Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won’t either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.

When I got to Washington, D.C., I made the mistaken assumption that my interest in Indigenous literature would be not be shared among others in the International Student House.  I was very lucky to discover that the only two other Smithsonian interns in the house were not art history or American history or biology or zoology majors, as I was projecting, but an Aborigine Studies student and Native Studies student interning with the National Museum of the American Indian and the library of the NMAI in Maryland.  As you can imagine many of my, Lucy’s, and Carla’s conversations involved Aboriginal politics, history, and literature.  When I asked Carla what I should read for Bookstravaganza, she saw that Louise Erdrich’s The Painted Drum sat in my unread pile on my e-reader, and picked it.

The Painted Drum is a story steeped in tragedy told between many characters; first Faye Travers, a woman who runs an estate business with her mother, investigates the origin of a beautiful painted drum she finds in the house of an old Indian agent and trader after his passing.  The narrative flows into the family story of an Ojibwa man, Bernard Shaawano, whose grandfather created the drum after the tragic death of his daughter.  The drum finds itself at the heart of a final story of Ira, a broke and desperate mother, and her three children, who are left at home without heat and food.

What I really liked about The Painted Drum most of all is that it felt like a narrative that wasn’t as confined by the usual novel conventions.  Characters entered and suddenly dropped off, and the sections carried on at their own pace without feeling the need to mirror each other.  It felt refreshing.

More politically, The Painted Drum is a story of repatriation — the return of Aboriginal artefacts, sacred objects and remains to the nations or tribes to which they belong.  While in Washington D.C. I was lucky to attend a one day symposia on the NMAI’s work in repatriation.  It’s really astounding to realize how many museums still refuse to give Nations’ the options of repossessing their own historical and cultural objects.  Erdrich not only tells a story of characters who all experience tragedy in their lives, it’s also the story of an object that helps heal the wounds of those tragedies — a far greater use than sitting collecting dust in the attic of a dead white man or behind glass to be admired for a handful of seconds by unknowing museum visitors.

Carla picked The Painted Drum, and she was one of the most excited of my friends to read for me.  Carla actually attended the same Library Sciences masters program as Kathleen (see my post on Serena by Ron Rash) in North Carolina (where she was also raised), and this fall she fell in love with working as an intern for the NMAI library in Maryland.  She told me she once contemplated a career reading for audiobooks, and you can tell through this recording.  She reads with such emotion and clarity.  It was a great pleasure to listen, and I’m happy to share it with you as well.

Books Read: 12


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