A Different Drum

Louise Erdrich is a poet who happens to be a novelist, or a novelist who happens to be a poet; either way, her identity crisis is working. After 11 novels, including Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and The Master Butchers Singing Club, she's remained a rarity: a prolific writer who manages to maintain her prolific talent.

Her secret? "I just keep trying to write every day," she says. "I don't know where I'm going."

Pretty impressive for a woman with six children -- the youngest is four years old -- and a puppy. This cornucopia of youthful energy is why, she says, she doesn't have trouble writing once she's alone in her office. "I have to get them all settled," she says. "By the time I get there I've used up all my block."

Children are at the center of her life, and therefore at the center of her latest tome, The Painted Drum. The book's cornerstone is a ceremonial drum belonging to the Ojibwe tribe, around which revolves the tales of children both lost at the hands of erring parents and saved by their own innocent grace. As in many of her other novels, Erdrich uses multiple narrators, magical realism, Native American history and, above all, a supreme lyricism to weave her tale.

The book is sad, but the pain it causes is soothed by enchanting prose. Erdrich, now 51, started out as a poet, and her artistry lingers the way poise never leaves a ballerina. An umlaut over a character's name is a "vampire bite"; a tormented heart "creaks shut"; the drum is "more alive than a set of human bones."

Though almost all of Erdrich's work is flavored with Native American culture, she is not didactic. "I hope nobody thinks they're learning from me!" she says. She is charming, witty and supremely modest: "I try not to be of any use to anyone," she says, "except to tell a good story."

In that regard, she's indispensable.

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Julia Ramey