Heritage, loss and spirituality merge in "The Painted Drum," Louise Erdrich's newest novel, about an estate appraiser who encounters a...

Share story

“The Painted Drum”
by Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, 288 pp., $25.95

Heritage, loss and spirituality merge in “The Painted Drum,” Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, about an estate appraiser who encounters a rare and valuable Native American drum. Ambivalent about her own Ojibwe heritage, protagonist Faye Travers isn’t surprised that there are important Ojibwe artifacts in the estate she is appraising; the subject’s grandfather was an agent at the Ojibwe reservation.

But this drum, a ceremonial object made of moose skin stretched across cedar, affects Faye so strongly that she abandons her usual ethics and takes the drum home with her. At night, she hears the drum speak to her; it clearly is an object of rare power. Its powers are more fully realized in a dramatic incident near the novel’s end, when the drum calls to a trio of desperate, freezing children who have lost their way.

Erdrich employs multiple points of view to tell the history of the drum and Faye’s journey to return it to its rightful owner. The most interesting voice is Faye’s own, full of vulnerability, striving to connect with the people she loves. Honest and probing, Faye tries to do what is right in her relationship with her mother, as well as in her passionate liaison with a sculptor with problems of his own.

The theme of lost children haunts every corner of the novel. Faye has lost both her sister and her father in circumstances that are harrowing to read; Faye’s lover, about whom she also is ambivalent, has lost a daughter. And the man who made the drum did so while grieving for his own young daughter, who was devoured by wolves; her tiny bones are actually inside the drum.

Yet for all this sadness, Erdrich’s lyrical storytelling brings hope and reconciliation to her characters, who grow through the transformation of their grieving. It’s a remarkably affecting novel.

Melinda Bargreen is the classical-music critic for The Seattle Times.