Tuesday, May 18, 2010

I Read 'Shadow Tag' in Less Than 24 Hrs -- That's How Good It Is.

Louise Erdrich has never appealed to me as a writer. Perhaps it is because I knew her only as a Native American writer, and felt her stories had little to do with my life. I also think I may have read a short story by Erdrich in my college English classes and didn't enjoy it then. For whatever reason, I largely ignored her subsequent career and book releases. Also for whatever reason, I picked up a copy of her newest novel Shadow Tag off the "new book" shelves at my local library last week.

Shadow Tag tells the simple story of a family's daily life. Gil, the father, is a world-renowned artist whose paintings of his wife Irene have sold for large amounts of money and financially supported the family for many years. Irene is an academic who never quite finished her doctorate, instead focusing her energy on raising her children and posing for her portraits with Gil. Their children, Florian, Riel, and Stoney, range in ages from 13 to 6 years old and struggle with their own age-appropriate issues -- book reports and stuffed animals.

However, throughout the course of the novel, Erdrich describes those events which make the family not ordinary, but rather quite extraordinary. There are, first of all, the diaries. Irene is a journal-keeper, having written in diaries her entire life. One day, Gil breaks her trust and reads the diary Irene considers a private extension of her soul. With that betrayal, the family is sent into a tailspin of destruction. Gil is obsessed with his wife's private life, Irene with finding her privacy again, and the children with this tension that now exists between their parents. The children, Riel in particular, make the novel heartbreaking in its brutal honesty about the truths that they sense, even when nothing is spoken aloud.

Erdrich's writing is beautiful and haunting. She references the family's Native American roots, but never slaps readers in the face with an educational agenda. Rather, it is a novel about a family whose members happen to have Native ancestry. This ancestry plays a part in their lives, as all of our histories affect our futures. The narrative flows easily, even through changes in narrators and point of view from first to third. In the end, Shadow Tag evolves into the story of a family who loves one another, but also has its tragic flaws.

Interesting is the novel's connections to Erdrich's own personal life. She was married to fellow Native American writer Michael Dorris, but their marriage ended in divorce after they had three children together. Coupled with that tragedy, they were accused by at least one of their children of child abuse in later years. Erdrich's ex-husband committed suicide in 1997. While the novel differs in detail from Erdrich's own life, readers may find parallels from the obvious tragedy that exists in Erdrich's story and the story of Gil and Irene.

For more info on Erdrich's other books, see her HarperCollins Publishers website. In addition to being a bestselling author, Erdrich also owns an independent bookstore in Minnesota called Birchbark Books.

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