Academic journal article MELUS

Storytelling, Melancholia, and Narrative Structure in Louise Erdrich's the Painted Drum

Academic journal article MELUS

Storytelling, Melancholia, and Narrative Structure in Louise Erdrich's the Painted Drum

Article excerpt

To say that the story of Louise Erdrich's The Painted Drum (2005) is subtly told would be an understatement; I argue that the transformation of the protagonist, the process central to this novel, is not described at all. Rather, the narrative structure, with its unexplained breaks and juxtapositions, conveys the means of the protagonist's change. The novel sets the following puzzle for readers: Part One is narrated by Faye Travers, a woman whose tenacious attachment to her dead sister prevents her from engaging fully with the events of her own life; Part Four presents a transformed Faye, with a new attitude that enables her to connect creatively with the outside world. Something has changed her--and we have only Parts Two and Three to look to for explanation. The stories in Part Two are told by Bernard, a man on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota; his tales are succeeded in Part Three by the story of a young girl named Shawnee and her siblings on the same reservation. But we know nothing--or almost nothing--about Faye in these intervening sections. We know from the first chapter of Part Two that Faye and her mother have come to the reservation to return the Ojibwe ceremonial drum Faye discovered in a New England attic; we know they form part of the group listening to Bernard's stories-listening, that is, to the stories we are reading. But Faye's consciousness is not open to us during the storytelling, nor when the narrative returns to her focalization in Part Four does she mention any response to the stories. What we know from Part Four is only that Faye has changed: her perception of reality has shifted toward an Ojibwe worldview, she has a new vision of her relationship with the dead, and she is more open to the unfolding experiences of her life. What brings Faye out of her melancholic state?

The cure is built directly into the narrative structure; the mechanism of change is dramatized, not described. Because the plot of The Painted Drum is undertold, because the process of Faye's transformation is not narrated, the reader has to do work ordinarily accomplished by plot; to understand the change that takes place in Faye, a reader has to imagine the effect of Bernard's storytelling on Faye through making his or her own associative links between Bernard's stories and Faye's situation. The Painted Drum puts the reader in the position of listener to oral storytelling, in the sense that the text requires the reader to adopt a way of thinking akin to that of a listener to traditional storytelling. Kimberly Roppolo says of American Indian philosophy, "We are taught by story, and we explain by story, not by exposition" (268). Betty Booth Donohue notes that Native storytellers leave out explanation and connective materials, expecting "the hearer to do his or her own independent thinking" to fill the gaps. Just so, Bernard's stories are laid out for us in Part Two of The Painted Drum, but the author leaves it to us to discern how they affect Faye. As in the oral tradition, "the hearer/listener must infer cause and effect" (Donohue 68). (1)

Moreover, the reader must make connections in a particular way-through what Paula Gunn Allen calls an "accretive technique" (Sacred 95-96). In order to understand how Bernard's stories influence Faye, readers have to make associational leaps across different story lines, as listeners to oral storytellers have to listen for analogies between disparate tales in a story cycle. As we read, we begin to notice similar details occurring in the widely different contexts of the stories, and we learn to connect them. These parallels gradually build up a lived philosophy on death, loss, mourning, survival, and the continuing relation of the bereaved to the dead. Placed in Faye's position, as audience to Bernard's stories, we enact the process of listening that shifts Faye's view of life. While there is no explicit explanation in Part Four for Faye's transformation, we understand it, because we have experienced a readerly version of Faye's conversion to a different way of knowing? …

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