Since reading the first, tormented pages of her beautiful, emotionally riveting first novel, “Love Medicine,” I have been drawn to works by Louise Erdrich, who in many of her novels weaves the lives of contemporary Native Americans into the complexity of modern times. She does so with honest, compelling characters, drawn within saga-like stories of families coping with alcoholism, joblessness, discrimination, misdirected passion, and insecurity—joined, for better and worse, by the stone-hard love of family and shared history.
Her 14th novel, Shadow Tag, details the dissolution of a marriage between an artist and an academic, twisting from the dangling ties of guilt and memory, acting out the cruel moments of extending a failed marriage beyond its time. Irene America has lost trust in her artist-husband, Gil, upon discovering that he has been reading her diary; she uses his deception as a final excuse to stop pretending love remains between them. Both are alcoholics, and he is an abusive father as well. He both loves and resents the children. She begins two diaries—falsifying the one he is reading with affairs intended to provoke him into ending the marriage he is so insistent on preserving; the other is true, locked away from him in a safe deposit box.
Yet, Irene is elementally attached to Gil, a noted artist, both as the subject of his acclaimed series of work, and as a woman who struggles against his faith in her, finding it hard to deceive her husband in the face of his suffocating control over her. Gil’s possession of Irene’s body through his art is complex, complete, invasive and cruel.
Throughout the story, Irene’s revelations about the exploitative, callous treatment of Indian people and animals that symbolize the very soul of the West by artist George Catlin, her doctorial subject, provide a parallel to her own life with Gil, and his fierce attempt at possessing her nature and freedom.
Erdrich’s portrayal of their deteriorating relationship is wrought through weakening cords of love and hatred, strength and weakness, need and resentment—territory the author undoubtedly knows from her own troubled marriage to author Michael Dorris, who committed suicide in the wake of a family trauma. Irene wants to let Gil go, but not destroy him. It is that conflict which ultimately destroys them both.
The story unfolds through both of her diaries, and a third narrative which fills in the gaps between her journals and records the anger and confusion of their children, while examining the ways men and women use each other for love, inspiration, fame, punishment.
Throughout her writing career, Erdrich has intimately created lives of contemporary Native Americans with both wit and tragic insight. Her words burn into the heart, changing what we know of modern Indian life—always on display for historians, curious non-Indians, art collectors, but lost to the truth.