Arguably best known for the New York Times bestseller THE PLAGUE OF DOVES and my personal favorite, THE PAINTED DRUM, Louise Erdrich earned the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award and was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is an American literary treasure. With an impeccable plot, rich prose and timeless questions about love adroitly answered, SHADOW TAG bleakly examines the mechanics of love and illusive personal identity in this noir tale of secrets and betrayal. That examination reveals that “[e]nduring love comes when we love most of what we learn about the other person and can tolerate the faults they cannot change.”
Protagonist Irene America explores the nature of love --- and trust --- when trying to establish her personal identity in a quagmired marriage, while quasi-celebrity artist/husband Gil assumes Irene’s infidelity and reads her private diary. Gil violates a basic trust, and Irene manipulates him with information in the Red Diary that she knows he reads. Squirreled away in a bank safe-deposit box, the secret Blue Notebook reveals more of Irene than Gil’s “starkly sexual” paintings of her without which he never may have acquired artistic fame. Financially secure Gil woefully compensates for violent outbursts and physical abuse with lavish gifts. Reminiscent of THE PEA AND THE PRINCESS, Gil can “feel a hair beneath a piece of paper.” Presumably to show how sensitive he can be but on a physical level.
There is mention of a spontaneous one-time fling that Irene cannot erase --- from the Blue Notebook or her conscience. Other than that, she is “faithful to Gil for the obvious reasons”: her three children. His expensive gifts are reluctantly accepted, but it is the simple game of playing shadow tag as a family that has all of them feeling as though they are one. References are made about Gil’s portraits being like shadows of the souls of her Indian forbearers. That is on a cerebral level far beyond my ability to accurately interpret. How can I capture in one sentence the pain of being a surviving descendant of genocide?
While Gil grew up with witless TV sitcom drivel, Irene matured with Shakespearean tragedies but never the Bard’s comedies. Fitting, given what befell Irene’s (and Erdrich’s) Native American heritage and peoples --- not only in this country but all of the Americas. Erdrich’s novels have key characters descended from various tribes. She relates poignant lessons from that history to Irene’s present ensnared marriage, along with her keen insight into the complex workings of a child’s mind. To punish Gil for not releasing her from the marriage and allowing her to take the children, Irene coldly writes in the Red Diary: “None of the children have one molecule in common with Gil.” Belatedly, Irene learns that “they argued sometimes for comfort.” She sets a course for calculated, diabolical revenge.
Irene justifies excessive alcohol use, which she says is to ease the pain of being trapped in a tragic marriage. She doesn’t realize that she’s slipped into alcoholism even when teenage son Florian follows in her path with wine and drugs. The wunderkind is also trapped when he suffers physical abuse from Gil and blames Irene for being weak. Sorry, Mom, said Florian in a cold, bored voice. Why don’t you just have another drink and go to bed? So fluid is the transition between third-person narration and dialogue without quotation marks that you wonder why they’ve ever been used. This lack of punctuation is consistent with text in a diary. Erdrich’s words without the familiar marks are as seamless as watching a movie, knowing which character is speaking --- and the visual impact those words have.
At the end of this compelling novel, readers realize that they, like Gil, have violated a trust by reading the Red Diary and Blue Notebook. Unlike Gil, they have the ability to learn about true love, respect for others and the lost art of trust. How we come to read the diaries is the brilliance that makes SHADOW TAG bestseller bound, and sure to earn Erdrich a Pulitzer Prize, not just a nomination.
Reviewed by L. Dean Murphy on May 2, 2011