Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich

Did you know that it is officially Louise Erdrich month? Emily declared it so, and I jumped on the wagon. I had both Shadow Tag and The Plague of Doves on my shelves and, after a brief perusal of both, I started with Shadow Tag.

Gil is a brilliant artist, and his wife, Irene America is his muse. His paintings of her range from the beautiful and majestic to the crude and degraded. Out of their odd union have come three children: Florian, Riel, and Stoney. To put it bluntly, Gil is abusive to Irene and the children. Irene copes with this by drinking and by keeping a journal. A red journal. Then she discovered Gil has been reading it. So, she buys a blue journal, keeps it in a safety deposit box, and puts her real thoughts there. The red journal remains in its hiding place and becomes a tool to manipulate Gil. As you can imagine, the whole thing is a powder keg.

This little family is in complete disarray. I mean really. An abusive father. A manipulative and alcoholic mother. These explicit paintings of their mother. A tense and dark atmosphere at home where none of them feel safe or respected. I ached for this family. Especially for the kids, and especially for Riel. Riel, who decides that she is going to develop her Indian skills and save her family when the time comes.

They have two dogs, the guardians of the family. They remain nameless throughout the book “because if anything is sacred, they are.” (251) These two dogs carefully monitor the tone of the house at all times and insert themselves as appropriate to distract or defuse:

Wherever the family was, these two dogs, both six-year-old shepherd mixes, took up their posts at the central coming-and-going point. Gil called them concierge dogs. And it’s true, they were inquisitive and accommodating. But they were not fawning or overly playful. They were watchful and thoughtful. Irene thought they had gravitas. Weighty demeanors. She thought of them as diplomats. She had noticed that when Gil was about to lose his temper one of the dogs always appeared and did something to divert his attention. Sometimes they acted like fools, but it was brilliant acting. Once, when he was furious about a bill for the late fees for a lost video, one of the dogs had walked right up to Gil and lifted his leg over his shoe. Gil was shouting at Florian when the piss splattered down, and she’d felt a sudden jolt of pride in the dog. (19)

I love these particular dogs and the idea of dogs as guardians. Like the dogs, Erdrich added nice touches throughout that reminded me of the Native American background of the characters without making the story about their ethnicity.

The blurb on the book (and I’m guessing the selling mantra) revolves around the manipulations in the red diary. While it is an interesting idea, I was relieved that it was not the central idea of the book. Still, as a journal writer, I think the violation of someone reading your personal thoughts is horrific. I don’t think Irene can ever forgive Gil for that violation. She reveals her entire body to him to paint but necessarily claims and retains control of her thoughts. But the discovery of Gil’s intrusion gives her some control of their narrative. Throughout the book, this idea of control over the narrative is both implicitly and explicitly explored:

History is two things, after all. To have meaning, history must consist of both occurrence and narrative. If she never told, if he never told, if the two of them never talked about it, there was no narrative. So the act, though it had occurred, was meaningless. (106)

Though this story is dark and a little horrifying, a large part of what makes it shine is Erdrich’s writing. I particularly loved this bit about a mother’s brain:

A mother’s brain is a ort pile where the cultural guano of the ages of each of her children survives. A composted yellow slick on the bottom of Big Bird feathers and Barbie hair cut with Crayola scissors and old plastic marker tubes and Tweety card decks, tiny little shoes, purses, belts, shimmery underwear and skates for Barbie and then the more politically correct stuff made of wood, the popsicle stick dolls and the blocks in every shape, painted, the wooden horses and the sets of foot-piercing dangerous jacks and red rubber balls and the miniature horses and the coveted big plastic horses and the Playmobil and Legos and action figures and math toys and sets of mazes and puzzles from about twelve dozen sets and the stuffed things – tigersnakelephantarantulapepigiraffeturtleagle – and the marvelous tea sets that come in every china pattern and the little furniture and mirrors, the detritus of vintage Star Ponies and Wild Things and Seuss figurines and every McDonald’s Happy Meal toy and then, well, all of this compacted together with old Halloween candy mortise into a solid-earthen basement floor of kid knowledge. (232-233)

This is a story about a mother, but it is also a story about children. Perhaps this is a result of my relatively new role as a parent, but most of the books I’ve read lately seem to at least touch on this theme of parents letting children down. I understand that this is the way of the world, but it is still heartbreaking. And the parents in this book undoubtedly, repeatedly, and irrevocably let their children down.

Despite all of the heartache in Shadow Tag, Erdrich made me feel secure in the darkness. She had control. I’m sure you can tell from all of these quotes that I loved the language. I loved the language-play, even if I didn’t quite understand all of it. For example, there was something going on with the capitalization of “xmas.” Over seven or eight pages, the word appears four time, in succession, as follows: “Xmas,” “xMas,” “xmAs,” and “xmaS.” (231-238) I’m not sure what that is about, but I found it interesting.

Anyway, Shadow Tag is pretty darn dark. But Erdrich has a way with it. It’s illustrative and thought-provoking. It has a sad but interesting end that illuminates the narrative, a la Atonement. There is so much here. So many layers.

Shadow Tag, by Louise Erdrich [rating:4]

P.S. Louise Erdrich does not have her own website (at least that I can find), but she does own an independent bookstore called Birchbark Books.

Have you read or reviewed this book too? Feel free to jump in with your thoughts or leave a link to your review in the comments.