Louise Erdrich and 'The Painted Drum'

Cover of 'The Painted Drum'

hide captionA New Hampshire woman struggles to return a sacred object to the Ojibwe in Louise Erdrich's latest novel.

HarperCollins

Novelist Louise Erdrich returns to the Ojibwe world in her latest work, but The Painted Drum also explores human relationships. The central character steals the title object in order to give it back to its rightful owners.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Louise Erdrich is famous for writing stories anchored in Native American mythology, but her latest novel drifts free of her literary home base. "The Painted Drum" is built around the internal life of a contemporary woman, and in it, Erdrich explores new territory: human relationships. Martha Woodroof has this profile of the author.

MARTHA WOODROOF reporting:

Sure, there's territory in the novel that will seem familiar to Louise Erdrich's readers. Its middle sections trek back to Ojibwa Nation land, where myth and magic compete to explain the power of "The Painted Drum."

Ms. LOUISE ERDRICH (Author, "The Painted Drum"): I work really out of mythology, so often I work out of a story that has remained lodged inside somehow, or I work out of history, you know, out of a sense of historical inevitability with characters.

WOODROOF: But this novel begins and ends in un-magic and un-mythical contemporary New Hampshire. It's the story of Faye Travers, who steals a painted drum from an estate she's appraising and decides to return it to the Ojibwa. The drum unlocks Faye's heart. She's a woman who's ambivalent about feeling anything that rises above pleasant or sinks below unfortunate. Relationships for Faye are boats, little tippy vessels likely to founder. Faye's world, Erdrich says, contained the hardest truth she's ever tried to get at.

Ms. ERDRICH: It was this woman's voice which, I suppose, is--was not far from my own. I had to strive very hard to make it not me. And I had never really written a contemporary woman with a lot of my own observations that I'd actually written down in journals.

WOODROOF: What Erdrich has given us is a picture of Faye's profound solitude and struggle to connect with another person.

Ms. ERDRICH: (Reading) `Perhaps it was easier to live with the longing for Kurt, the uncertainties even to indulge the unnecessary and maybe insulting secretive precautions. To deal with him in the everyday world of sorrow and surprise takes the mythology out of the relationship, but it is more than that. I feel his suffering when he's near as a physical weight, crushing one heartbeat and the next, squeezing my breath. The madness of sorrow emanates from him. It enters and unfurls in me. It revives my own pain, unsolvable, alive.'

WOODROOF: It's difficult to think of the word `relationship' in connection with Louise Erdrich without thinking about her relationship to the late Michael Dorris. The two spent a decade back in the '80s as the publishing world's golden couple. Much was made at the time of their close literary partnership, a public closeness Erdrich says she fostered in part to atone for her devotion to her art.

Ms. ERDRICH: I think I tried so hard to overcompensate for that core in me that was the pure writer and, really, self. You know, you're pretty self-reliant or self-absorbed, at worst--that I just spilled over into trying to represent intense closeness to him and to everyone around me, you know--intense accessibility, I should say.

WOODROOF: He has been gone for a decade now. Do you miss...

Ms. ERDRICH: Yeah.

WOODROOF: ...his input in your writing life, his editing?

Ms. ERDRICH: Long silence. Well, as a--you know, I said something about trying to get at the truth as a writer, and I'll try it as a person, too. No, I don't. And it kind of makes my heart jump a little to say that, but, no, I don't miss it.

WOODROOF: Since Michael Dorris' death in 1997, Louise Erdrich has published four novels, even venturing somewhat away from North Dakota and her Ojibwa cast of characters. Marcia Robertson teaches English at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. She says that with "The Painted Drum," Erdrich takes on the challenge of writing about a human being without any structural assistance from ritual or song or ceremony. At the core of Faye's life is the unresolved impact of her sister's death. In less skillful hands, Robertson says, characters just all of a sudden get it. But with Louise Erdrich, the process is provocative.

Ms. MARCIA ROBERTSON (Sweet Briar College): Erdrich is so able to compellingly articulate that mystery in Faye's behavior and in how she thinks about her behavior. It doesn't come out like `Bing! This is it!' It's the painfulness of someone trying to start to come to terms with what she has not come to terms with before.

WOODROOF: At the end of "The Painted Drum," her character's cautious existence shredded, her life's painful mysteries exposed, Erdrich has Faye Travers voice a kind of exultant acceptance of life on life's terms.

Ms. ERDRICH: (Reading) `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.'

WOODROOF: Louise Erdrich dedicates "The Painted Drum" to her daughters, of whom she says, `I want them to have happy, easy, wonderful lives, but that's not life.' For NPR News, I'm Martha Woodroof.

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by Louise Erdrich

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