BookDragon Books for the Diverse Reader

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich

Shadow TagBy the time I got to college, the Michael Dorris/Louise Erdrich union was already legendary. Dorris was the founder of Dartmouth’s Native American Studies department – might I add, how ironic that took 200+ years after the school was created in 1769 “for the education and instruction of Youth of the Indian Tribes in this Land” – in 1972, the same year Dartmouth finally allowed women, including Erdrich. Dorris remained an adjunct professor until his 1997 death. By the time I graduated, Erdrich’s debut novel, Love Medicine, was already a lit class standard.

Through the years, Erdrich’s name always popped up on my own bookshelves. So, too, did her personal stories in passing conversations, as she kept in touch with a few of the same people with whom I kept in touch. The media never quite left her alone, either, especially as her writing career quickly overshadowed the originally more established Dorris. Their relationship proved volatile, and ultimately destructive. They were in the midst of a messy divorce, with Dorris fighting accusations of the worst abuse when he finally took his own life. I always felt a bit of a voyeur reading Erdrich’s later titles, distracted somewhat by thinking I might know too much about their writer.

In the advance galley of Erdrich’s latest, Shadow Tag, which debuted this month, her publisher HarperCollins’ Executive Editor describes the books as “a fierce new novel that resembles no other work of fiction by Louise Erdrich.” I have to argue that I found reminiscences of Love Medicine‘s disjointed narratives, pieced together with easy-to-overlook tiny connecting details told in gorgeous prose, and how welcoming that experience was to a hungry reader.

“It is a heart-stopping story with the tension and suspense of a psychological thriller,” the editor continues, “an anatomy of a marriage that leads its characters, as well as the reader, to a stunning and utterly unexpected ending.” Indeed, once you start, surely you will not be able to put this book down.

Irene and Gil’s marriage is falling apart. Irene, a historian with an unfinished PhD, is both muse and destroyer of artist Gil who has built his entire career on capturing his wife’s essence on canvas. He is a slave to his devotion to her while she is suffocating in his destructive hold on her soul. She’s trying desperately to leave, but her resolve keeps faltering. She finds unexpected understanding and strength with a half-sister who appears, almost deus ex machina, after more than four decades of unknowing … and she is (surprisingly) named … Louise.

Trying to hold on to her sanity, Irene keeps two diaries: the Blue Notebook she has in a safe deposit box into which she seemingly records the truth, and the Red Diary that she pretends to hide in her writing studio which she uses to manipulate her prying husband who cannot stay away from the hurtful words. Their three young children, ages 5 to 14, fall victim to the intense demise of their parents’ relationship.

Genius Florian discovers pot and the ubiquitous wine bottle, and secretly searches the web to examine his parents through his father’s art, filled with often disturbing, humiliating, sometimes pornographic images of his mother. Middle child Riel records as many memories as she can recover, and is determined she can hold her family together if only she could “figure out how to get the better of [her father] … [and] take away his power.”  Stoney, the family’s baby, born during the destruction of 9/11, captures his mother, as his father does, in pictures, and in his innocence, always with a wineglass in hand. “‘He thinks it’s part of you,” Florian explains to a bewildered Irene.

The three often huddle together, comforting each other without words, especially when the fighting becomes too terribly loud. When the ending comes, as it inevitably must (that much you know), indeed how it happens arrives with a sudden slap of shock. The pieces fall into imperfect place in the book’s less-than-10-final-pages (don’t you dare skip ahead!): “you trusted me with the narrative,” the final voice reveals, just as we the readers turned page after page with that same trust, a trust that does not go unrewarded.

Readers: Adult

Published: 2010


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