In the opening pages, Faye Travers, an estate agent in New Hampshire, inventories the home of John Jewett Tatro, whose grandfather was an Indian agent, and whose grandmother was an Ojibwe. When Faye opens an attic room, she finds a collection of enormous value, including an incredible drum, hollowed out from a single piece of cedar wood and covered by a moose hide.
The history of the "Little Girl" drum takes the reader from New Hampshire to an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. Bernard Shaawano, who is the grandson of the drum's maker, narrates this section, telling about the life of his grandfather, why he made the drum, who he was memorializing, and how this drum eventually came to New Hampshire. The fascinating process by which the drum was made, the ceremonies and traditional beliefs associated with it, and the traumatic lives and deaths of the Shaawano family over three generations connect the drum and its history with the essence of existence.
In the final section, Shawnee, a young girl living in a remote area of the reservation, has been babysitting for her younger brother and sister for several bitterly cold days, without enough fuel and no food. Their mother has been sidetracked, drinking in town. The depiction of the lives of these children is heart-rending, and their connection to the "Little Girl" drum adds another layer of mystery to the drum's "life."
Written with a homey intimacy and honesty, Erdrich deals with big themes of life and death and the beliefs associated with them. Nature is an intimate part of this process, and it is further emphasized through symbols and repeating motifs--a field of orb spiders, a dog which escapes its cruel confines, wolves and their mystical connection with mankind. Always, of course, Erdrich conveys Indian spiritual values, even as she depicts their often sad and limited lives.
The characters here have real faults and real conflicts, but Erdrich is generous with them, never making value judgments while showing the circumstances which have determined their behavior. With interconnected stories involving characters from three generations and three different families, The Painted Drum is a novel which taps into universal feelings and hopes, even as it depicts some of life's terrible realities.