The third installment of the Boston Book Blitz takes a look at Louise Erdrich’s “Shadow Tag.” With an eye to full disclosure and making this literary journey as open as possible to those reading these pieces, I want to share my one simple rule for the Blitz. I plan on alternating between fiction and non-fiction during the reviews. Jumping back and forth between the two forms exists for two practical reasons. First, I believe that exclusively reading non-fiction or fiction for a long stretch of time wouldn’t be to interesting for anyone involved. Now that that thought is on paper, it sounds less logical than it did when I initially thought it up. The second reason is a simple issue of supply and demand. Most of these books are pretty damn popular. I have been getting them from the Medford, Massachusetts Public Library. It is a great institution, but at any time, a significant percentage of these books are checked out. So, I take out two books at a time. One fiction, one non-fiction. Massachusetts has a great system where a library card from one town is good in a whole host of others. I plan on taking advantage of that eventually, but for now, I enjoy my walk across the Mystic River to Medford’s library. Now that we have that cleared up, let’s talk some fiction.
Set in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, “Shadow Tag” is the story of a family coming unraveled. Written by Louise Erdrich, herself an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota, “Shadow Tag” follows husband Gil and wife Irene America in the weeks leading up to Christmas 2007. His job and her education focus on their Native American heritage. Gil is famous for his career-long series of portraits of his wife. She is struggling to finish her doctoral thesis about George Caitlin, a nineteenth century artist who traveled west to paint Native tribes. They also do a poor job of hiding their fraying relationship from the rest of the family. Their three children, Florian, Riel, and Stoney are deeply attuned to the troubles facing their family.
Both parents address this reality in their own ways. Gil, suspicious that his wife has been unfaithful, begins reading Irene’s diary. Irene, who is rarely seen without a glass of wine in her hand, becomes aware of this. She begins writing entries with the intent of misleading her husband, while putting her true thoughts to paper in a diary she keeps in a bank safety deposit box.
It is the contrasting diary entries that provide the reader a deeper understanding of Irene’s motives. However, most of the story is told in third-person narration that I found to be extremely powerful. Shifting from a focus on the husband and wife to the three children, Erdrich’s writing brings each member of the family to life. And they all sound so much like actual people, that there were moments where I forgot I was reading fiction.
Gil realizes that he could very well lose the wife he says he loves and his family. In an effort to avoid this, he decides to give everyone what they desire. Stoney, the youngest child wants clouds. Gil finds an artist friend who will be able to paint clouds on the child’s ceiling. This plan is rooted in his belief in the power of a single moment. As a talented painter, his career revolves around his ability to capture a moment in time, freeze it, and share it with others. It is the same way with individuals who are endowed with the talent of expression – the spoken word, the written word, photography et al. It is this overriding confidence in the power of one act or word to wipe away the trouble that has been building up over an extended period of time that blinds Gil to reality. His wife, a student of history sees moments as part of a pattern and a narrative. These disparate perspectives color much of their struggles.
Erdrich does a great job of tying the concept of the shadow through the story. In one of her truly private journal entries, Irene explains that until George Caitlin visited, Native artists had not incorporated shadows into their works. The cultural significance instilled by their ancestors notwithstanding, shadows play an important role in the story of Gil, Irene, and their children. Erdrich crafts unique meaning to shadows for each family member.
There is nothing more disappointing when reading than an ending that is so predictable you could see it coming long before it arrived or an ending that is unsatisfying. Without mentioning the details, the end of this book is riveting and the last chapter is perfect. “Shadow Tag” is well deserving of its place on a list of 2010’s notable books.