Louise Erdrich’s Novel, Shadow Tag

Shadow Tag
Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins, 2010
255 pp

Reading theorists have told us many times that readers take an active part in creating the very narratives they’re reading. A text is not static, no matter what the intention of the writer. Once the story goes out there, we, as readers, begin a kind of paint-by-numbers process of reinventing the narrative to fit our psyches. The broad outline of the story is there, but we color in the personal textures to suit ourselves.

Louise Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag, certainly opened up my own politically-correct notions of what I want to read or see in a fictional work about another culture. It continues to be difficult for me to shift out of a rather rigid belief that indigenous cultures should exist in this rarified world of innocence, that they should not accomodate themselves, in any way, to a dominant, sometimes oppressive culture—Japanese art should be pure “Japanese”; Chinese literature should be untainted by Western values; Indian film should always be driven by the country’s Hindu heritage.

Although I have evolved to having made my own accomodations, I find myself sometimes becoming a kind of politically-correct tourist who doesn’t want any ancient culture to change. I am sometimes particularly hard on writers and artists who produce assimilationist works, hybrids that have their sensibilities in two cultures.

And Erdrich is, indeed, a Native-American writer, who crosses over into both the Native and American culture, or perhaps, more accurately, into the classic, frontier Native and the modern, white, bourgeois cultures.

For those students who may be reading this review to find out “what happens” in the novel, you might as well stop here. I will not reveal the specific ending of the novel. I will say, however, say that the water and shadow imagery carry us inevitably and horrifically into the fatalistic ending of two characters who could not truly let each other go (that may not satisfy your AP English teacher, so hop on the damn novel and really read it).

Okay. I’m ready now. My brief, laconic (hope you notice the austere, pared-down sentences) drive-thru-Monarch-Notes overview:

The novel is “about” two Native-American characters, a husband, Gil, and his wife, Irene. They have three children, Florian, Riel, and Stoney. Gil is an alcoholic and a successful Native-American artist. He physically abuses at least two of the children and, on one occasion, rapes his wife.

Irene is a Phd candidate whose drinking also becomes a problem. She wants out of the relationship. Gil doesn’t want to let her go. They go to therapy but eventually stop. His drinking gets out of control. The family goes to a cottage after Gil is released from an alcohol rehab. There’s a brief ending chapter in which one of the children is the narrator.

That’s it for the plot summary, folks. The rest is nuance blended in with some “facts” to pass an exam.

Irene discovers that her husband has been reading her Red Diary. She starts a secret, Blue diary and sometimes writes fictional narratives in her Red Diary to provoke her husband. They are often narratives about men she has contrived as biological fathers of the three children, her way of trying to get Gil to leave her (she knows how to work the male ego here). Her ploy does not work. In one of the therapy sessions, he realizes that he’s been duped.

As I started to reread the novel, I began to realize that the shadow is a symbol that Erdrich cleverly fuses into the narrative. In at least one Indian tradition noted in the novel, the Ojibwe, a shadow is a mirror and a visible representation of the soul. In one scene, Gil purposely steps on his wife’s shadow as he’s painting her (the various poses of Irene in his paintings become his signature pieces and have made him successful in the art world; they have also added to the the love-hate relationship which feeds both of their fatal attractions to each other).

Irene’s Phd thesis is about a nineteenth century English painter, George Catlin, who does paintings of Native Americans. Just as Westerners brought fatal smallpox to the Americas, the Indians believe that Catlin through his portraits and profiles, brought the “shadow,” of a demonic soul, a doppelgänger devil-force into existence.

In another scene, Irene, Gil, and the children, play “shadow tag” in the snow under a street lamplight. This is Erdrich’s modern family version that innocently resonates with all of the Native references Erdrich makes to the ancient Indian portrayals of the shadow-archetype.

It might be a stretch here, but Louise, a woman who Irene finds out has the same biological father, is another aspect of the shadow-doppelgänger motif that Erdrich appears to be obsessed with (It may be the artist, Erdrich, reminding us that everything in our lives has a shadow, a mirrored image of what or who we are. Even our language or our pictorial images—the language Irene uses in her diary and the portraits Gil paints—create a new, mirrored persona of what is or what we want it to be).

And, of course, in the obsessive narrative between Gil and Irene, they themselves continue to play shadow tag as they move in and out of their sado-masochistic, love-hate relationship (the novel’s title, Shadow Tag, after all, does suggest that).

Gil believes in a “moment” that will make Irene vulnerable so that he can “tag” her, even “possess” her as Irene says in one of her diary entries. Not until the end of the novel, do we find out how irrevocable and fatalistic Irene’s own attachment is to her husband.

Their feral-like sexual encounters become analogues to the final primal moment in the novel when Irene and Gil are placed in a setting where the threat of mutual annihilation becomes the final penetrating event that will truly prove their karmic destinies. The characters cannot live with each other without emotionally lacerating themselves. It is no surprise, then, that Erdrich places Irene and Gil in a final tragic “moment” when they will be finally released from their sado-masochistic game.

The reader may recall here two telling events that become shadow-like prophecies of what will happen to the couple: In her research, Irene discovered that a young island woman swam out to Christopher Columbus’s boat to greet him; in a second scene, Gil keeps returning to a favorite Rembrandt painting, Lucretia, about a mythical character who had committed suicide rather than face the ignominy of having been raped. Both of these scenes are clear hints to the novel’s tragic ending.

In so many other ways, Erdrich’s novel is a hall of mirrors, simulacra, imitations, shadows. Even the two cultures—the Native and the white bourgeois—move back and forth as they touch each other with death rattles, memory, tenderness, and rage, hints, foretellings, and painful contrasts.

It is no accident, for example, that Erdrich uses native stories from the past that will play out their own karmic narratives in the lives of Gil and Irene. Irene’s Phd work on the nineteenth century painter, Catlin, becomes a narrative that sets up the tragic scenario of Gil painting Irene. Catlin’s paintings were seen by the natives as a demonic form of soul-stealing in the same way that Gil had begun to possess his model-wife, over the many years that he had done her sometimes brutal portraits. It is that manic possessiveness that becomes a claustrophobic nightmare for Irene. Just as the nineteenth natives wanted the paintings returned to them, Irene wants her soul back.

Aside from the memories both Irene and Gil have of their parents and the historical references to Catlin’s paintings of the Indians, Erdrich uses the daughter, Riel, as the new-generation of Native-Americans who want to hold on to the ancient character of her Native tradition. She wants to carry that strength through any replay of 9/11, to store food and clothing for an imagined moment of Armageddon when, by the sheer force of her Native heritage, she will survive.

I have to admit that I struggled with this novel the first-time through. It seemed, on my first reading, to be frantically disjointed and fragmented as it moved from diary entries, to third-person narrative, and then back to a first-person narrative of Riel, Irene and Gil’s daughter.

I also felt that Erdrich tried to cover too much research territory and may have overreached in her attempt to make the historical material relevant (I had the same problem with Alice Munro’s story of the nineteenth-century female Russian mathematician in Too Much Happiness). Erdrich may have been unconsciously playing to a more literate audience to prove that she had done her homework.

And the overt use of the shadow symbolism seemed a bit of a deference to the academics who love to read below the surface of a text—and we love to find “hidden connections” (the symbolism-game is a bit retro for my tastes and one I thought had been laid to rest by Bergman). Having said that, I realize that I may have exposed myself as a colonial appropriator, assuming that symbolism is an exclusively Western literary tradition. The Native-American culture is far more crucial than any literary take I might be making here, but I thought I would keep my comments in just to make the blood-flow of debate going (I can’t rid myself of the alpha- male syndrome).

Erdrich’s novel, Shadow Tag. It’s a great work. Give it a shot.


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