For whom the drum rolls

In her 1996 novel, Accordion Crimes, Annie Proulx followed a flinty old squeeze box from its birth in Sicily to its unsavory demise a century later on a highway in Florida. The instrument at the heart of Louise Erdrich’s 10th novel fares a little better—in fact, it even tries to thumb its moose-skin, button nose at Thomas Wolfe’s adage and make a pilgrimage back home again.

The difference between these two fates says a lot about these two titans of American literature, Erdrich in particular. If Proulx is a cackling nihilist, Erdrich is her spiritual opposite, a sorcerer of sorts who has a spiritual respect—and even fear of—the dead and their promises.

That side of her worldview comes powerfully to the fore in this new novel, which, like so many Erdrich books before it, tiptoes into the crawl space of family life and returns with a gripping yarn about mothers and daughters and the legacy passed down between them.

In the past, Erdrich’s stories have taken place almost entirely in or around North Dakota, but this time the action begins in New Hampshire. The woman who kicks off the tale is Faye Travers, an estate agent who has been carrying on a furtive affair with a German painter named Kurt.

Their relationship takes a turn toward deeper waters when a young man dating Kurt’s daughter gets into a horrible car accident, putting more pressure on Kurt than he could everimagine. In the accident, an old man is killed, and Faye is sent to clear out his attic.

Erdrich’s characters have always been a reliably unpredictable lot, and Faye is no different. Rooting around this man’s storage space, she discovers the percussive instrument of the book’s title: a tall, deep, cedar drum covered in moose or buffalo skin. When she steps near it, Faye would swear it makes a sound: “One deep, low resonant note.” She steals it.

Like a blue note that reaches all the way back into the past to tell its story, this drum’s sound has a story to be told, and Erdrich unspools it masterfully here, drawing us back in time and back to the Ojibwe reservation that has been the source of so much of her fiction.

In the process of bringing the drum back to its home, Faye discovers she’s not carrying a mere instrument. In Ojibwe culture, a drum is a kind of way station between the living and the dead. Drums can talk to one another, raise the dead and even kill.

One of the spirits immediately stirred up by the drum is Faye’s dead sister, who begins to haunt her dreams in a fully realized form. She has a husband and a house—a life so acutely imagined it seems like a parallel world.

Increasingly, Erdrich’s novels do not resemble linear stories but visits to this intense, colorful place. Like The Last Report of Little No Horse, a book that also dealt with the boundary between life and death, some of the best sections of The Painted Drum work best as stand-alone set pieces—brief tangents on one long tangent.

The best of them involve Fleur, who made Erdrich’s 1988 novel Tracks such a stunner. The second narrator in The Painted Drum is a hospital worker who tells of how his grandmother Anaquot gave birth to Fleur when she lay down with another man. His grandmother then stole away with her other baby, so they could all live with her new lover.

Along the way, they are attacked by wolves, and Anaquot’s older daughter falls prey to them. Fleur survives, but her half-sister’s bones wind up in the hands of Anaquot’s devastated, cuckolded husband—who builds a drum from them.

Like Proulx’s accordion, the drum seems to bear bad news wherever it goes, but Erdrich is able to keep the instrument from being a kitschy harbinger of death and destruction. As this book marches toward its astonishing finale, the drum seems to beat out the rhythm of Erdrich’s prose.

In the novel’s final section, three children hear its mournful boom as they are dying of starvation. It calls to them, like a pied piper, growing faster and louder, nearer and nearer. The scene is short but tense and will raise hairs on your arms because it’s clear the drum is calling us, too. And yet, I dare you to try to stop reading before you learn what happens to those who heed its call.