From Erdrich, A Page Turner With Deceit At Heart

Louise Erdrich i i

Louise Erdrich is the author of 13 novels and the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minnesota. Paul Emmel Photography hide caption

itoggle caption Paul Emmel Photography
Louise Erdrich

Louise Erdrich is the author of 13 novels and the owner of Birchbark Books, an independent bookstore in Minnesota.

Paul Emmel Photography

In her new novel, Shadow Tag, writer Louise Erdrich turns a diary into a deadly device for bringing about the final collapse of a marriage. As is often the case in Erdrich's books, her main characters are Native American. But in this novel their ancestry is mostly a backdrop for a shattering family drama that leaves no one unscathed.

Irene America and her husband, Gil, have three children, and their lives are tied together domestically and professionally. Irene is a scholar who can't seem to finish her thesis. Gil is a Native American artist, famous for his portraits of his wife. Gil's volatile temper keeps the children in a constant state of fearful watchfulness, wondering if and when the family will fall apart.

As Louise Erdrich tells it, Shadow Tag is a book she had to write..

"I found myself writing about this without really wanting to," Erdrich says. "It was an insistent book. And there were times where I really dreaded going up to keep going on it, but it was as though I couldn't stop."

'Shadow Tag'

Though Erdrich says the book is not based on her own life, there are echoes of her life in it. During the 1980s Erdrich and writer Michael Dorris were a literary golden couple. Dorris, who was also part Native American, was her mentor and then her literary partner. Together they helped put Native American literature on the map.

They were also the parents of six children: three adopted, three biological. The couple's public image began to fall apart when one of their adopted sons accused them of child abuse. Then in 1996 Dorris was accused of sexually abusing at least one of his daughters. Just before he was expected to be formally charged, Dorris committed suicide. Erdrich says as she wrote Shadow Tag, she knew comparisons to her life were inevitable.

"I thought about it all through the book," she says. "That is why it's constructed in a way that ... I moved it farther and farther from my personal reality. By the end of the book, I didn't feel that it had a bearing on it."

Erdrich says that she thinks "people who write store up their emotions and use their emotional experiences almost as a sort of currency from one book to the next." But she insists that clues about her marriage to Dorris aren't in Shadow Tag.

Shadow Tag: A Novel
By Louise Erdrich
Hardcover, 272 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $25.99

Read An Excerpt

"I've had so many experiences by now that I have a lot to draw on," Erdrich says. "I'm 55, and what happened in my marriage happened quite some time ago. So I think that if I was going to write about it directly I would have done so right afterward."

The central device in Shadow Tag, a fake diary, is drawn from Erdrich's life. As the book begins, Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary. So she starts a new one, in which she writes the truth. She fills the one that Gil reads with untruths and half-truths that instill him with doubts about her fidelity. Erdrich says when she was in college someone read her diary and that is when she first had the idea of planting a false diary. Erdrich, who has kept diaries all her life, says she thinks of them as sacred.

"I think one keeps a diary after a time imagining that no one would ever violate it. It seems unthinkable. So that when it happens, its a great breach of trust," Erdrich says.

In Shadow Tag, Gil's breach of trust is revealed during a casual dinnertime conversation that couldn't seem less like an invasion of privacy on its face. But as Irene manipulates Gil's emotions with her false diary, the tension in the household begins to spin out of control. When the end comes it is both surprising and shocking. Erdrich says she thinks of the book as a psychological thriller.

"I was, I suppose you'd say, addicted to writing the book, so I wanted it to be a kind of addictive book, in which the reader needed to know immediately what happened to the persons in it. In which they became fascinated with the people and wanted to know how this was all going to turn out," Erdrich says. "I think from the first page, you wonder how can this possibly turn out, what's going to happen to these people, how will the children make it? Will they make it?"

Erdrich, a onetime literary phenom and winner of many writing prizes, says she wants the books she writes — and the ones she reads — to be irresistible.

"I always want the books to be page turners," Erdrich says. "I love having stories where people want to know the endings. That's the kind of book I like reading. Maybe I'm not a very intellectual reader at all. I like stories."

According its author, Shadow Tag has no message. It is simply a story that she felt compelled to write. And if it weren't for Erdrich's gift for storytelling, this tale of a marriage gone wrong might be hard to take.

Excerpt: 'Shadow Tag'

'Shadow Tag'
Shadow Tag: A Novel
By Louise Erdrich
Hardcover, 272 pages
HarperCollins
List price: $25.99

November 2, 2007

Blue Notebook

I have two diaries now. The first is the hardbound red Daily Reminder of the type I have been writing in since 1994, when we had Florian. You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you. I have written in a book like it ever since. They are hidden in the bottom of a drawer in my office, covered with ribbons and wrapping paper. The latest, the one that interests you at present, is kept in the very back of a file cabinet containing old bank statements, checks left over from defunct accounts, the sorts of things we both vow to shred every year but end up stuffing into files. After quite a lot of searching, I expect, you have found my red diary. You have been reading it in order to discover whether I am deceiving you.

The second diary, what you might call my real diary, is the one I am writing in now.

Today I left the house and drove to the branch of the Wells Fargo Bank that is located in uptown Minneapolis beneath the Sons of Norway Hall. I parked in the customer lot and walked in, through two sets of glass doors, down a spiral staircase, to the safe-deposit desk. I tapped a little bell and a woman named Janice appeared. She assisted me in the purchase of a medium-size security box. I paid cash for a year's rental and signed my name, three times for signature verification, on the deposit-box card. I took the key Janice offered. She matched my key to another key and let me into the safe-deposit area. After we slid my box from its place in the wall, she ushered me into one of three private little closets, each containing no more than a desk-height shelf and chair. I closed the door to my private room and removed this blue notebook from the big black leather bag that you gave me for Christmas. Ten or fifteen minutes passed before I could begin. My heart was beating so fast. I couldn't tell if I was experiencing panic, grief, or, possibly, happiness.

As soon as the sound of Irene's car motor vanished into the general low din of the city, Gil sat up. The towel he used to shade his eyes slipped off his face. He often lay down on his studio couch when he needed to refresh his eyes, and sometimes dozed off. He could sleep there for as long as an hour, but more often he jerked awake after fifteen minutes, refreshed and startled, as though he'd been dipped in a cool underground stream. He sat up patting for his eyeglasses, which he sometimes balanced on his chest. Sure enough, the wire ovals had fallen onto the floor. He retrieved them, hooked them behind his ears. His thick hair started low on his brow and he swept it straight back, smoothed and retied his short, gray ponytail. He stepped up to the painting of his wife and regarded it. His eyes were close-set, cold, curious, and dark. He pressed a knuckle to his chin. His thin cheeks were flecked with yellow paint.

He peered at Irene's likeness, then he frowned and looked away, blinking like a person who can't quite make out some figure in the distance. Suddenly he bent over, and added a few tense strokes. He stood back, wrapped his brush in an oiled cloth, then put the brush and palette into a Ziploc bag. He deposited the bag in a small refrigerator. Descending hungrily, he left his studio and went downstairs to the kitchen. He took the one can of Coke he allowed himself per day from the refrigerator. Sipping, he descended the rest of the way and entered his wife's basement office. He went at once to the sand-colored metal file cabinet and opened a drawer labeled Old Accts.


November 1, 2007

Red Diary

What an odd day this is with the house so empty and Gil upstairs endlessly reworking a painting. I expect he is having trouble asking me to sit for him again. Flo and Stoney are okay now after fever. Riel never gets sick, but she is having a difficult time at school this year. Stoney is making a board game for some afterschool project that involves the habits of black bears. Very Minnesota. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing.

He actually thought he could feel the blood drain from his heart when he read those words. I think I'm going to lose my mind over what I'm doing. He put his head down on the cool oak of Irene's desk, but then thought, as he always did when he came across some hidden reference to the other man, what the hell did I expect? I let myself in for this. I looked for this. He tried to discipline his reaction, and forced himself to consider other explanations: she could be referring to her history thesis. Or that old article on Louis Riel. Before the children, she had published several pieces that were considered brilliant; she was a very promising scholar. Her work had included new material that shed light on Riel's mental states. She'd kept working after Florian was born. But after she became pregnant again, she had abandoned her work — except that she'd named their daughter after the depressed Metis patriot, a man to whom his own family was distantly related. Riel was eleven. And now that Stoney was in first grade, Irene was trying to finish her Ph.D. thesis, so that she could start looking for a job. Her subject was now the nineteenth-century painter of Native Americana George Catlin.

Perhaps she was suffering from academic frustration? Losing her mind — over George Catlin's clumsy, repetitive, earnest depictions of people — all of whom would sicken and die soon after. Gil himself could not bear to look at Catlin's work. The tragic irony of it offended him. And for Irene, a poor excuse.

From Shadow Tag: A Novel by Louise Erdrich. Copyright 2010 Louise Erdrich. Reprinted by permission, HarperCollins. All rights reserved.

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