BEST BOOK (2006)

The Painted Drum

While not set in the Twin Cities, Louise Erdrich's The Painted Drum resonates with an understanding of the Upper Midwest as it once was (and is now), with a history of which few non-Native Americans have even the faintest grasp—unless they've read any of Erdrich's 10 preceding novels. Drawing extensively from her mixed Ojibwe/European heritage, the Kenwood resident and Birchbark Books owner chronicles the creation and miraculous life of the titular instrument from three points of view, relaying the narrative from one voice to the next. First is Faye Travers, a quiet, middle-aged ex-Bohemian who runs an estate-appraisal business in New Hampshire with her half-Indian mother. After finding the drum in a hoard of valuable artifacts accumulated by an unscrupulous trader, she steals it, certain that it must be returned to its rightful owner. Her mother agrees, and, together, they bring the drum to a North Dakota reservation where hospital worker Bernard Shaawano takes over both instrument and story, relating the harrowing tale of the drum's creation in an easygoing manner that contrasts wonderfully with Travers's formal tone. Erdrich slips into omniscient mode for the novel's third and most gripping section, wherein a near-tragedy sends the drum back into active employment. Erdrich's grasp of Objibwe traditions is impeccable, but it's her genius for portraying ordinary people at their best—and worst—that makes The Painted Drum one of her most compelling books yet.


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