[Author’s Name] The realm of spirit in ‘The Painted Drum’ Sometimes writers work within the medium of a natural phenomenon, via explication, letting the reality of the natural phenomenon do most of the work…
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The author perceives and develops a model, a dynamic yet observable, and therefore translatable form. This opens up the opportunity for setting; once there is a river, a land with trees, a bustling city, there is a place for characters to develop and events to unfold. The language of the natural or biological phenomenon opens up the opportunity for understanding. The form of the river, the tree, the city, is translatable; but the language of the thing itself cannot be written, it can only be hinted at, surmised. A similar incommunicableness is true for human characters, as well. As Louise Erdrich articulates in her novel The Bingo Palace, no one can ever know another's heart but it is our task to try (Beidler 57) It is convenient for writers to juxtapose human characters with natural biological phenomenon because their stories are already compatible. Louise Erdrich connects the human story to setting, to the natural and biological phenomenon environing it, but in a different way. She incorporates what might be temporarily named the mundane spirit realm, which is somewhat comparable to the realm the fairies and sprites of English literature propagate due to their similar earthbound statuses. But, Erdrich utilizes the realm of spirit in a way that reassesses the human relationship to its ancestry, to its community, and to the earth. Erdrich routinely introduces a spiritual side to her works, and nowhere is this more apparent that in the novel The Painted Drum. In The Painted Drum, Erdrich incorporates the realm of spirit. She creates a character that is arguably more real and more alive than June's character is in The Bingo Palace-though, in many ways, they are equally foundational to the stories in which they reside. Despite her shortcomings as a character, June is at least a human spirit (Ambrose 97; Erdrich ‘The Bingo Palace’ 7); as readers we are use to the idea of a ghost having some influence in the world of the living, but a particular character from the spirit realm in The Painted Drum challenges the conventional concept of the supernatural avatar. This character is, in fact, the painted drum itself. More than invoking the spirit in a musical sense, the drum develops into a character as rich and dynamic as any human equivalent. In its role as cultural icon, it represents meaningful Ojibwe philosophical concepts and connects a modern story and setting to a tradition originating time immemorial. But, it transcends the role of cultural icon in Erdrich's hands, and becomes the nexus that develops and sustains important, earthly relationships and transcends its misperception as inanimate, going so far as to save lives (Novania xviii – xx). When the drum is introduced, its discovery by Faye Travers -a New Englander whose job it is to organize the possessions of the newly deceased-causes an unusual reaction in her (The Painted Drum, 602). In a maneuver uncharacteristic of her usual professionalism, she confiscates the drum and takes it home with her. Her mother, Elsie, co-owner of their business and herself part Ojibwe, easily provides enough knowledge of the drum to cause Faye to regard the instrument with increasing respect, elevating it beyond its initial artifact status. Faye begins to question the object's status and her relationship to it from that very moment, before her mother is even aware that she has it in her possession; she
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