Sunday, February 05, 2006

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 that you tasted as many as you could.

The quote above is not why I asked for the book. The quote above is one that I found when I thought I was finished with the book.

When I reached what I thought was the end, there was another chapter to go. As I read it, I recognized that the writer saw the need to wrap things up, to end where she'd started and tie up any loose ends. I like a few loose ends--they make me think more about the characters and their situations. So I was skimming through the last chapter, already planning to tell you all that the book should have ended a few pages earlier, when I got to the quote at the top. The quote is from Faye Travers, the first and last character we meet in the book, and it is what she imagines that her mother could tell her, rather than simply saying "good night."

There are three separate, vivid tales within this one novel. The link between the three stories and families is the drum. The drum contains the spirit of a young girl -- a spirit strong enough to save the lives of many others. Whether this girl was sacrificed to save her baby sister or gave her own life willingly to save her younger brother is left to the reader to decide. There is no doubt that she was and is a strong, protective force.

In two of the stories, we see how the loss of a child affects various family members. In the third we watch a desperate mother almost lose her children twice.

As compelling as these stories are, Erdrich enhances them with intimate details of wildlife as well. Her accounts of ravens made me feel like I was back in Fairbanks, where the ravens--who do laugh like humans--were everywhere. Her ravens live in New England but their actions captivated me more than the human characters on many pages. Wolves, dogs and even a bear have important roles in this spirited novel as well.

This is only the second of Ms. Erdrich's many novels that I have read but it will not be the last.

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