I picked up this book because I noticed that I had six Erdrich books on my shelf, yet had not read a single one of them. I started with The Painted Drum because it seemed to not involve itself with the Love Medicine series (of course the Pillagers are discussed, but I knew enough to get me through.)
Ironically, book #32 from last year was A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, by Michael Dorris. I wonder, more often than I can believe, how Erdrich handled Dorris' suicide, in her writing and in her life.
The Painted Drum is written almost like a series of short stories that are all held together by, yes, the painted drum. The drum itself is so alive that it too must be considered a character throughout, and the stories that are told are heartbreaking, believable, and true. Never once was my "Hmmm...really?" flag raised; moreover I found myself wanting more of all of the characters, feeling a sadness at the close of one section but then replacing it with joy at seeing characters that I had been missing for several chapters.
What stood out for me the most was the way that Erdrich took a story of tradition, of the past, and mixed it with modern characters, then made it general enough that I saw myself in this story. There is so much to learn, and sometimes the answers come in something as simple as spending the night at a man's house for the first time, as Faye Travers did, or in learning to listen to the drum.
This passage took my breath away for its truth and its hope...and I leave you with it.
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 Painted Drum