The Painted Drum Summary

Louise Erdrich

The Painted Drum

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The Painted Drum Summary

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Published in 2006, The Painted Drum is a magical realism novel by Louise Erdrich. The book weaves together three stories that are centered on a mysterious Native American artifact: a buffalo skin drum. One story is about Faye Travers, who finds the drum while appraising a New Hampshire estate; another concerns Bernard Shaawano, whose grandfather made the drum; the third is about nine-year-old Shawnee, who desperately tries to survive a hellish night. Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation and is one of the most significant writers of the Native American Renaissance.

Faye Travers is a middle-aged divorcée of part-Ojibwe descent. A former drug addict, she now lives with her mother, Elsie, and works in her mother’s business as an estate appraiser and antiques dealer. Faye is called to the home of a recently deceased member of her New Hampshire community, the fictional village of Stiles and Stokes, and while evaluating the property, she uncovers a cache of valuable Native American artifacts. Because the neighbor, John Jewett Tatro, had once been an agent on the Ojibwe reservation, Faye is not surprised at the find. After all, Faye’s grandmother lived on the Ojibwe reservation as a child, and so Faye was well acquainted with the rumors of John’s collection.

However, things become a little more surprising when Faye discovers a huge buffalo skin drum, decorated with tassels, small tin cones, beads, and a painted yellow line, among the cache. She’s drawn to the drum, and upon moving closer to it, she hears a low note emanating from it despite the fact that no one has touched it. Stranger still, no one else hears anything. Propelled by the mystery and her attraction to the drum, she does something that she’s never done before: she steals the drum.

While puzzling over the drum, Faye also has to deal with her lover and neighbor, Kurt Krahe, a German sculptor. Once standoffish, Kurt has become clingy and possessive after the death of his daughter. He even goes so far as to suggest that he and Faye revive her family’s apple orchard. To Faye, this is unthinkable. During her childhood, a tragedy took place in the apple orchard that has haunted her ever since: the accidental death of her younger sister Netta. Instead, Faye pulls away from Kurt, saying, “The madness of sorrow emanates from him. It enters and unfurls in me. It revives my own pain, unsolvable, alive.” However, she does learn a German term from him–Zwischenraum, which translates as “the space between things.” This is a reoccurring concept in the novel.

Faye shows the drum to her mother. Elsie explains that the drum is sacred and a living thing. Although they make their living selling such items, they both agree that they must return it “home.” Indeed, they feel rather compelled to do so as if by an outside force.

The novel now shifts to the perspective of Bernard Shaawano, who lives on the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota. When Faye and her mother return the drum, Bernard tells the story of its history. Bernard’s grandfather, “Old Shaawano,” was wasting his life away as a drunk. His wife, Anaquot, had fallen in love with another man and taken their daughter when she left the reservation. As they flee, the group is confronted by a pack of wolves, and Anaquot allows the girl to be eaten in order to save herself and her new lover.

Old Shaawano drinks to drive away the memories, but when the ghost of his daughter visits him, it inspires him to build the drum as “a container for the spirit, just as if it were flesh and bone.” He’s guided in the task by dreams and visions sent by the spirits. The community also rallies around the once friendless drunk, giving him “more help than he could manage, and more advice than he could trust.” He places his daughter’s bones inside the drum. When Old Shaawano dies years later, he passes the drum down to Bernard’s father (a son who Anaquot did not try to take with her). Sadly, he sells it for rum.

The novel now shifts to the third story, which takes place three generations after Faye and Elsie return the drum. Nine-year-old Shawnee and her younger brother and sister are starving. They’re so desperate, they’ve already eaten all the toothpaste in the house and scooped up every dusty crumb in the pantry. Ira, their mother, has left the Ojibwe reservation and gone to the bar in town, where she hopes to earn some food money by selling sexual favors. She’s now been gone for several days, having gotten sidetracked by drinking.

Shawnee knows they are at the end of their rope. She bundles her siblings up and trudges into the cold night in search of help, but soon they are lost in the woods due to a snowstorm. Alone and freezing to death, they begin to hear a comforting noise: the healing music of the drum. Following the sound, the Ojibwe children are lead away from certain death to shelter and safety.