51 pages 1 hour read

Louise Erdrich

The Painted Drum

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2005

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Summary and Study Guide


Louise Erdrich’s 2005 novel, The Painted Drum, is part of a series that follows the interconnected lives of several families of Ojibwe descent. While the series’s first two books—Love Medicine (1984) and The Bingo Palace (1994)—take place in reservation communities in the upper Midwest, The Painted Drum begins and ends in contemporary New Hampshire, where Faye Travers stumbles upon an Ojibwe ceremonial drum.

This study guide refers to the 2005 Harper Collins edition of the novel.

Content Warning: The source material and this guide include discussions of substance use disorder, suicidal ideation, and prejudice/abuse against Indigenous communities.

Plot Summary

In her fifties, Faye Travers has no close relationships beyond that with her mother, Elsie, and even their interactions are limited to routine matters about the home and life they share. Among their neighbors on Revival Road in a small New Hampshire town is a sculptor, Kurt Krahe. Faye and Kurt are secret lovers, but their affair is limited to nocturnal hours; during the day, they remain aloof towards one another. After Kurt’s college-aged daughter dies in a car accident, he seeks a closer relationship with Faye, but she shuts him out. His grief threatens to unleash her own, which she has guarded inside herself since a childhood mishap killed her sister, Netta. Faye and her mother have never talked about the tragedy.

Elsie and Faye own an estate appraisal business, and while cataloging the contents of a house where an "Indian agent" once lived, Faye finds an Ojibwe painted drum. Although Faye’s maternal grandmother was born on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, neither Faye nor Elsie display any affinity, cultural or otherwise, for their heritage. Faye, who considers herself unsentimental and rational, is shocked to perceive the drum sounding of its own accord and, then, to find herself stealing the artifact from the estate. With Elsie’s help, Faye schemes to deliver the drum to its rightful owners in North Dakota.

In a home near Hoopdance, North Dakota, Bernard Shaawano meets Faye and Elsie, who have returned the drum to the reservation. He knows they are related to the Ojibwe Pillager clan and thinks, “Those two don’t know who they are, what it means that they are Pillagers” (107). Bernard does, so he tells them by recounting the drum’s story.

Bernard’s grandfather, Old Shaawano, made the drum after his wife, Anaquot, left him for her lover, a Pillager named Simon Jack. She took with her their nine-year-old daughter and her lover’s newborn child. During their journey to the Pillager camp, wolves attacked, and Anaquot threw the older girl to the hungry pack to save herself and her baby. Shaawano found the bones of his beloved daughter and, despairing and guilt-ridden, neglected his young son.

Shaawano’s daughter then appeared in a dream and instructed him to make a ceremonial drum. Spontaneous visions guided his design of the drum, including a painted yellow line across its head. At the direction of his daughter, he strung her bones in its body. The finished drum was very powerful and kind, like the girl inside it, and its songs healed many people. One day, Simon Jack entered the drum circle. The drum released a dark, frenzied energy that Simon Jack kept step with until he fell dead. After that, Shaawano retired the drum. Anaquot and Simon Jack’s wife, Ziigwan’aage, died from disease introduced by white people. Ziigwan’aage’s daughter was sent East, to an Indigenous boarding school, and Elsie is her daughter.

The traumatic events of his childhood, including his father’s early neglect, marked Shaawano’s son all his life. Although he drank to a fault and beat his own children, in his sober moments he taught his son, Bernard, the songs of the drum. From his grandfather, Bernard learned the drum’s history, but, at some point, his father hawked it for alcohol from an "Indian agent."

On a bitterly cold day, following the drum’s return, Ira, a young woman living off the reservation, travels into town to petition the welfare agency for food and heating fuel. Her three young children, left alone, set the house ablaze trying to keep warm. Nine-year-old Shawnee leads her siblings towards their nearest neighbor, Bernard, but they collapse from the cold. The beating of the drum rouses Shawnee and guides the children to Bernard’s house.

After hearing Bernard’s story of the drum and its power to release sorrows through its songs, Faye returns to Revival Road changed. She and Elsie finally talk about Netta’s death, thereby releasing their feelings of guilt, and she renews her relationship with Kurt. While visiting Netta’s grave, Faye sees ravens tumbling joyfully in the skies above and imagines them to be the incarnation of her sister’s spirit.

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