The Painted Drum

ISBN: 0060515112
ISBN 13: 9780060515119
By: Louise Erdrich

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About this book

While appraising the estate of a New Hampshire family descended from a North Dakota Indian agent, Faye Travers is startled to discover a rare moose skin and cedar drum fashioned long ago by an Ojibwe artisan. And so begins an illuminating journey both backward and forward in time, following the strange passage of a powerful yet delicate instrument, and revealing the extraordinary lives it has touched and defined.Compelling and unforgettable, Louise Erdrich's Painted Drum explores the often fraught relationship between mothers and daughters, the strength of family, and the intricate rhythms of grief with all the grace, wit, and startling beauty that characterizes this acclaimed author's finest work.

Reader's Thoughts

Melissa Conner

** spoiler alert ** I love Native American literature. It’s the reason I decided to study Native American culture in college. I find it honest, raw, and emotionally and spiritually powerful. I love the connection they have with nature, with their families, with their history, with their stories. Usually I’m physically engulfed in Native lit; however, I’m sad to say that this wasn’t the case with The Painted Drum.Louise Erdrich’s 11th novel begins in present day New Hampshire, where a mother and daughter team work as estate appraisers searching for Native artifacts. When their neighbor suddenly dies, Faye Travers (the daughter) is hired to catalog the Native artifacts he has lying around his house. Amidst the clothes, dolls, and boxes, Faye finds a mysterious drum. Faye, who has been emotionally removed from the Native way of life, feels an immediate connection to this drum and believes she hears it beating. In a moment of shear panic, she steals the drum and watches over it, eventually traveling to an old Ojibwe reservation to find the original owner.At this reservation, Faye meets an old storyteller by the name of Bernard Shaawano. In a beautiful lyric, Bernard tells Faye about the history of the drum…how it came to be, why it exists, and what had to happen for the drum to be created. His story is one of passion, betrayal, unthinkable sacrifices, and survival. The third and final string in this braid opens with a little girl named Shawnee desperately trying to take care of her younger siblings in the dead of winter. Their mother is absent, having gone to town to try to find help for her children by bartering sex for money in order to buy food. Back home, Shawnee has no choice but to haul her brother and sister through an icy night when she hears a noise in the distance…dah dah dah!!These three stories intertwine the lives of Native women from the past and present to help tell the story of this mysterious painted drum. While I was rooting for this book the whole time, having loved the plot, I found it to be overwritten and near impossible to read at times. My mind wandered with the narrative and I found it difficult to focus my attention on this book.On the other hand, I did find parts of this novel intellectually moving. For example, wolves play a huge part in this book, both as characters and as tools of symbolism, and Erdrich’s description of them is nothing short of honorable. She’s obviously aware that wolves are highly respected in Native culture and she’s careful not to disregard them, however savage they may seem. The drum itself is also extremely symbolic both in this book and in the Native culture. I found it poetic that these stories all revolved around the drum, all gave the drum a beat, just as those who are chosen to play the drum at pow wows and ceremonies are circled around the instrument, bringing it to life.When all is said and done, I really wanted to like this book. I loved the idea of it and was maybe expecting something more than what was given. Though the messages in the book are heartwarming and hopeful, I found that they were overshadowed by the words, the descriptions, the fluff—if you will—that comes with making a visual novel. Read more at


Initially I was enchanted with The Painted Drum. I found the first character’s musing interesting and the language in places was stunning. She described the eyes of a character as “peach-colored granite with specs of angry mica”. I was also intrigued by the theme of life and death, the presence of the dead in the lives of the living, particularly as influenced by Ojibwe thought.But I was ultimately disappointed. Once the narration passed from Faye to the Ojibwe on the North Dakota reservation, I was bored. It was like every other story I’ve read by people fascinated by aboriginal peoples—reverent and wondering, but with little substantial to say. The stories were so typical as to be completely forgettable. It read like a mediocre public television documentary. I hate to say it but I didn’t care about anyone in the book except Faye. I was glad to get back to her in the end, but disappointed that she was settling for a relationship with the sculptor who seemed to me a huge big fake.I was particularly disappointed with the novel as it focused on the theme of the influence of the dead on living people. Yes that was there, but there seemed little of interest attached to the theme, except for the notion that dead children came back or at least were perceived as birds. There was no Indian mythology that was either fascinating or that seemed to provide a meaningful lesson to non-indigenous people.The writing was good, very good in places, but it wasn’t used to advance significant plot, themes, or characters. That writing is all that keeps me from rating this novel as frankly awful.


lyrical riveting writing in the best parts. Written from a woman's point of view. You must be interested in Native American beliefs and customs to get the most from Erdrich. "Drum" was not as good as "Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse." Still, the insights, alone, into native point of view in this book is worth the read.

Judy Croome

How does one even begin to review the writing of Louise Erdrich? Her words resonate with ancient mysteries and intricate complexities which draw me into her characters' lives time and time again. This novel is no exception.In The Painted Drum we follow the story through the eyes of different people.Faye Travers risks her moral rectitude and her career as an Estates agent by stealing an incredible Native American drum. It called to her with a single beat and she was overwhelmed by its mystical powers. Her grandmother was an Ojibwe and Faye takes the drum to return it to her tribe, its rightful owners. But before she hands it over, the drum works its magic on her. In a final healing catharsis, she is drawn to talking with her mother Elsie about the childhood death of her sister Netta. The novel concludes with Faye making life changing decisions.There is also Bernard Shaawano, the grandson of the Ojibwe maker of the drum. He narrates the history of the drum, and we learn about the tragic life of Bernard's ancestor. He made the drum by following the instructions he received from his young daughter who sacrificed herself to save her mother, Anaquot. She came to her father in visions, and Erdrich’s masterful use of language and rhythm take us into the heart of a man’s grief for a daughter he loved so much he could not love the son who still lived.The final section of the story relates the story of Ira and her three children. I won’t say more as this is the most powerful section of the book and I don’t want to spoil it. But here the drum comes full circle and, back in its rightful place, it throbs with life and hope.Erdrich has a way of taking a reader deep into the mysteries that surround us: the soul of wolves; the breath of the trees; and the dead who live on in our dreams. Each word, each sentence, has layers of meaning. No matter how mundane the topic - a man mowing a lawn for his lover – everything is intricately linked and woven together, in much the same way that our individual lives are all part of the same fabric of existence. We are one with each other, Erdrich says, and we are one with all of life.In The Painted Drum, her characters are flawed, but Erdrich does not judge them. Rather she shows them with unsentimental clarity and a deep understanding for the forces which drive people to do what they do. Erdrich's compassion is coupled with her skill and her wonderful imagination. Once again, she has written another masterpiece.


I enjoyed the indian lore. The story jumps around and is a little hard to follow. Talks about the ojibway indain tribe and I work with them on my mission.


I found this a beautifully written tale or rather series of tales around the theme of a Native American drum. The other running theme is death and bereavement as various characters come to terms with the tragic deaths of sisters and daughters. Louise Erdrich's descriptions of nature and animals were breath-taking giving a real sense of being in nature even when tucked up reading in an armchair thousands of miles away from her setting. She also deals sensitively with the Native American lore entrusted to her; something she makes clear in her end notes. This was a reading group selection and while attendance at the group was minimal due to a clashing event for some members, the novel proved a success with two of us while the others did not feel it was a bad book but expressed difficulties in relating to Faye as a character. It did generate a great deal of discussion, which always is a good outcome for a reading group's chosen book.

Allison Ann

WEEK 7WORD: PEGSBONUS: DOORMY LETTER: P - The Painted DrumBook: The Painted Drum by Louise ErdrichFinished: April 27, 2013Rating & Book Review: 1 star - Not my style of book at all. I hate when the author jumps around and makes it so difficult to follow the storyline (such as it is). I'm also not a big fan of this type of "literature", where everyones' lives are so desolate and nothing good ever happens and people are cruel to ones they supposedly love. I don't need a happy ending per say, but I need a little something besides misery in my books.BONUS WORDSPegs - page 163 - ... the feel of the tool in his hands, balance, the tension of fitting together his pieces, which he made with pegs and no nails...Door - page 84 - With a mighty swing of his booted foot, Lonny kicks in our door, which gives so easily he stumbles into the entryway...

Cynthia Rosi

** spoiler alert ** As a reader who has followed Louise Erdrich over the course of her career, I found many of the themes in The Painted Drum to be familiar: The Ojibwe characters Nanapush and the Pillagers are here, the German character in Kurt Krahe, the animals who watch over the story, and the interplay between the unseen and seen worlds. Erdrich has mastered all these elements in The Painted Drum, weaving them as water-tight as a cedar parka.What intrigued me most about this story was the character of the drum, and the various animals that signal changes in the story’s tone and intent. By the end of the book, I was convinced the drum had set the whole story up – from leaving the Ojibwe and retreating to silence in Jewett Tatro’s attic collection after the death of Simon Jack, to causing the death of the Tatro brothers via the ravens, falling into the hands of Faye Travers, and ultimately winding its way to Bernard in time to rescue the newest iteration of two small girls and a little brother.The drum is aided in its journey by animals which set things in motion in the human world. And so the story is fulfilled, bringing it full circle like the drum: The little girl who sacrificed herself to the wolves, whose bones make up the struts of the drum, has saved the life of Shawnee, Alice and Apitchi, and delivered to the Wolf a different gift – the love of his life.


One of the best paragraphs I've read in a long time: “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.” --Louise Erdrich, The Painted DrumThat sort of sums up the whole book, I think.

Mary Taitt

The Painted Drum, by Louise Erdrich 10/10 (5/5)I know I say this about many of the books I read, but I REALLY liked this book. I liked it so much that I intend to reread it sometime soon, after it has a chance to settle somewhat. Like many of Erdrich's books, this one is about Native Americans, and the voice feels authentic and human. It is divided in four parts. In the first, we meet a mother daughter team who deals with people's estates after they die, or go in a nursing home, etc. We also learn about their personal lives, and the personal and work intertwine in compelling ways. I hate reading reviews that give away the plot of the book or what's going to happen, but it is difficult to write about a book without mentioning an specifics. The daughter steals a painted drum, a Native American ceremonial drum, from an estate. She wants to return it to where it came from, to the Anishinabe people. In the second part, told by a native elder, we learn the story of the drum and all the events that lead up to the making of the drum and what happened to it afterwards. It's a multi-generational story with deep impact. The effect of the drum touches many people and their lives are enriched (or impoverished) as a result. The book is full of pain, tenderness and magic. Erdrich looks calmly at what it means to be human in all our imperfections, and raises our humanity up of few notches. It is melancholy in a bitterweet and somehow joyous way. I want to take nothing away from the telling of the story, all I can say is I hope anyone who might love it as I did will read it.


This is one of those books that I feel I need to contemplate for a while to fully get a grasp on what it was really all about. I found it to be a little confusing with the switching points of view; sometimes it took me a while to figure out who was telling the story.I can see the different subjects of this book such as family bonds, the responsibilities of mothers, Native American culture and traditions, would provide for a lively discussion amongst our book club members.There were parts of this story that I thought were beautifully written and the written words really carried me away as if in a trance or dream, but at other times I felt it was taking forever to propel the story forward as it seemed it was caught up in swirling words and didn't move anywhere.Knowing next to nothing about Native culture, especially on the east side of the country, I wonder if this book might have resonated more if I'd understood more of it. Sometimes I felt a bit like an outsider hearing an inside story.Overall my impression leaves me feeling as though this was a story I saw through a thin veil, or fog, and therefore my brain still has to process exactly what it all meant and if I really saw everything I needed to fully absorb it.

Jennifer King

The Painted Drum was a haunting novel. I enjoyed reading it, but Louise Erdrich's writing really struck me at the end. As threads of story and character wove together, I stumbled across this quote I love: "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."


This was the the best book I have read in years. Beautiful story, beautiful language, beautiful writing. And not pretentious, like some flowery language can become. One of my favorite quotes:"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 you tasted as many as you could."


Giving this book four stars for two, unrelated reasons:#1) The gorgeous writing. Nobody describes things as precisely as Erdrich, or plays with vocabulary as if she were painting. She creates unique characters and unique settings and gives you things to think about, after you finish the book. The writing is just superb.#2) I listened to the book, and the actress (Anna Fields) who does the reading makes each character a completely unique voice. I have never listened to an audio recording of a book with artistry like Fields'. Even listening to the book as I drove around, it was easy to keep track of who was doing and saying what, because each voice was so distinct.That said, the story was loose, disjointed, and occasionally, flat. The ending felt disconnected, as if Erdrich ran out of story (as in life) with a bunch of untied, ragged ends. It's usually easy to pick up some deeper truth in an Erdrich book, but this one simply ends.


(Bookclub book) I'm imagining that there are some people who would really like this book. If one was interested in learning about Indian culture from the inside out, this sad story might be interesting. What turned me off was the writer's technique if changing voices and going back and forth through time. It's almost like she thought she needed to use these techniques to make the story interesting. She didn't. It was an interesting, dramatic story without all the drama around the storytelling. I would have liked to see the story play out chronologically. The beauty of being an author is that they get to pick their techniques. I wish people wouldn't sell the straightforward story short.

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