Review: "The Painted Drum" by Louise Erdrich

  • Posted on: 9 August 2015
  • By: TedG

It was a crowded and noisy evening at The Rivers last Thursday. Perhaps it was best that only four of us showed up because a table for four is the biggest we could find…and in the crowd, Irv had a hard time finding us at that.

This is the second book we’ve read by Louise Erdrich, the first being The Round House last April. Jack felt The Painted Drum was equally as good as that book, praising her ability to capture the nuances of human relationships. He also appreciates her ability to portray reservation life as more than just background. It is, in some ways, part of the story and gives the reader a sense of the influence it has on the characters’ lives.

John, on the other hand, was less impressed. He agreed that she is a good writer, but he describes the story thus: “However long it took me to read it––let’s say four hours––I thought, ‘that’s four hours I’ll never get back.’” That’s more a comment on the story itself than the writing, and in some ways I agreed.

I read reviews of this book prior to the meeting, and one in particular mentioned how the characters in The Painted Drum are not as well-drawn as in her previous books. This is true. I remember The Round House being both a good story with compelling characters, but while this book has an interesting story––it was consistently the book I picked up when I sat down to read––it was difficult to muster any feelings for the characters. Maybe that’s because of the shifting back and forth in time. I don’t know if the story would have benefited from following a linear history of the drum, but the way the story was constructed left me unsure of where I was and left the characters a bit thin. But only a bit.

Still, one cannot deny Erdrich’s talent as a writer. When, near the end, a mother reveals to her adult daughter that she once had an affair when the daughter was much younger, the moment Erdrich describes is so poignant as to be almost uncomfortable.

We stare endlessly into each other’s eyes, which is a very hard thing to do with your mother. It is scarily intimate to gaze into the source of your life. But I know what freedom she is offering to me now. I am in that moment so truly alone that my breath goes out of me, and I feel a bit light-headed. I have to close my eyes and then I have a strange sensation. First, I feel her flowering above me, a leafed-out tree filling the sky with darkness, growing best at the expense of what’s beneath. Her guilt has been greater, deeper, and so black I’ve lived in its shadow. But suddenly, the sun is shining directly on me; I feel it. The brightness and steadiness and softness of light warms my skin and fills the room. When I open my eyes she is still there, but she isn’t forgiving me anymore. No, it is I who am forgiving her.

Descriptive? Indeed. There seems to be no moment when it is not a treat to read Erdrich’s words. Our rating of The Painted Drum’s Readability bears that out.

Readability = 4.5 out of 5.

But Interest was something else.

Interest = 3.1 out of 5

Both Jack and Ted would read another of Erdrich’s books, while John was less willing to do so. He doesn’t outright refuse, but he wants some background before he commits another four hours to one of her books.