three-and-half-stars
Bookmarks Issue: 
19-Nov-Dec-2005
user_rating: 
0

A-PaintedDrumFaye Travers, who lost her father and sister, knows grief. So does her lover, a sculptor who loses his own daughter. Full of sorrow, Faye, an estate appraiser living in New Hampshire, one day comes across a rare ceremonial drum—and steals it. When she decides to return the drum to the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation, where her own roots are, the tragic stories of five generations, bound together by sorrow, start to unravel. But the healing power of the drum, created from its own tragedy, diminishes grief, revives hope, and brings final redemption to some. "Nothing is the same as it was," Faye concludes, "before I reached out of my untested rectitude and stole the drum."
HarperCollins. 288 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 0060515104

Chicago Tribune 4 of 5 Stars
"Like other of her novels, from Love Medicine on, The Painted Drum can be read as a series of stories that refract each other, or extend out like corollaries of an original thought." Art Winslow

Miami Herald 4 of 5 Stars
"In her hands words glow like gems, precious as talismans, and they build a sturdy foundation for her vivid characterizations and dazzling descriptions. . . . That’s the beauty of The Painted Drum, of all Erdrich’s books: The stunning imagery lingers just as healing takes root in the hearts of her unforgettable characters." Connie Ogle

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"The drum seems to bear bad news wherever it goes—but Erdrich is able to keep the instrument from being a creepy kind of harbinger of bad news. It both heralds and holds, and as this book marches toward its astonishing finale, it seems to beat out the rhythm of Erdrich’s prose too." John Freeman

San Francisco Chronicle 4 of 5 Stars
"Erdrich moves effortlessly between the Anglo and Indian worlds, telling her story in a style both lyric and precise. . . . In communion with her dead, reaching closure with her mother and forging a new willingness to accept love, [Faye] comes to the place where the heart breaks and begins again." Reagan Upshaw

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Longtime readers of Erdrich are unlikely to rank it among her very best, but it nonetheless bears the marks of her mastery as a writer: neatly etched characters, finely calibrated prose, and flashes of wisdom and wit throughout." Marjorie Kehe

NY Times Book Review 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Erdrich’s great strength lies in her ability to inhabit, with utter conviction, the characters on either side of the culture gap, not to mention those caught in the wide no-man’s-land between." Benjamin Markovitz

Houston Chronicle 3 of 5 Stars
"The strength of Erdrich’s writing is at its peak when she conveys her Ojibwe legends in simple, muscular prose. . . . It seems impossible that Erdrich could leech all humor from her colorful characters, but the book has not one chuckle." Nora Seton

Chicago Sun-Times 1.5 of 5 Stars
"Erdrich’s somber characters . . . are so straight-faced they sometimes verge on ‘movie Indian’ stereotypes. This tone, combined with wordiness, makes The Painted Drum a tedious read." Natalie Danford

Critical Summary

Not her best, not her worst, say critics of Erdrich’s 10th novel. Yet though it’s leaner than works like The Master Butchers Singing Club and not as brilliant as others, it’s pure Erdrich, full of grace, legend, and mysticism. Here, she weaves together three stories, each about mother-child relationships, over time and place. Critics agree that Ojibwe elder Bernard Shaawano’s story is the strongest and most memorable; Erdrich renders reservation life impeccably. Faye’s story, by contrast, is a little too sentimental; as a character, she is more "dull-plumaged" than interesting (Houston Chronicle). Still, the novel possesses a charming, mystical power, and the story resounds. Despite the serious, ominous tone of the novel, it’s actually a tale of redemption—even joy.