America’s Nightmare

Shadow Tag
Louise Erdrich
Harper, 2010

Louise Erdrich’s novels often show us that things are not what they seem. In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse the priest in a small Ojibwe community is secretly a woman. In other novels, people who seem to be enemies are in fact bound together by the closest of bonds. Often, these secret truths serve to delight the reader, to inspire us to believe that there is a hidden beauty beneath everything we see on the surface. In Shadow Tag, however, the reverse is the case: a seemingly happy couple are in reality the bane of each other’s existence. Their three children are coming apart at the seams.

Irene America helps launch her husband Gil’s artistic career by endlessly posing in whatever position and with whatever props he desires. By the time the book opens, he is that rare breed: a painter who makes a very good living. Irene is still sitting for portraits, but she now openly despises Gil.

Gil hits the children and his wife, but doesn’t believe this ought to keep them from being happy.  He tries everything he can think of (and his imagination for this sort of thing is not great) to make the children and especially Irene happy.  Meanwhile Irene realizes he is reading her diary and torments him by entering false lurid accounts of sexual encounters with other men and anything else she can think of to hurt him. She hopes to make him hate her enough that he will ask her to leave. Until that can happen, she will drink away her life. And her children’s lives.

Though Gil is abusive, it’s never clear if the abuse is the main reason for Irene’s hatred of him. What’s clear is that his love for her is pathological in its constancy and its character. She recognizes it as such, yet (back to the unclear), she behaves as if she cannot leave without his permission. I should note that she does not appear to actually fear Gil or worry about the logistics of separating from him. The book offers a cautionary tale about becoming invested in our dysfunctions. (Many sources say the inspiration for this novel came from Erdrich’s own marriage to fellow writer Michael Dorris.)

Reading about a constant state of marital warfare takes stamina. When a new character, Louise, is introduced, I thought I might get some relief.  But her main role seems to be to take the kids to pow-wows and to be a “happy, well-adjusted lesbian.” Yes, this is how she describes herself. If Louise were endowed with additional personality traits, readers would be able to discern whether she says this wryly or earnestly. Oh, and incidentally, Louise is also the long-lost sister Irene never knew she had—a fact presented with less art than one would encounter on daytime programming.

I might have stopped reading if a friend hadn’t told me that ending really pulled everything together. Or maybe I wouldn’t have stopped.  Because although I often felt exasperated by all the characters, by the metaphors (mirrors reflect falsity, scarves bind family members, and shadows leave us vulnerable) and even by the writing itself, the plot kept cropping up in my head as I tended to other matters and I found myself yearning to know what would happen next. As it happens, the ending really is just about perfect, though I can’t say more than that without spoiling it. All in all, I would not count this novel one of Erdrich’s best, but it’s a small book and quick read and perhaps worth sticking it out for a masterful conclusion.

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