Shadow Tag,Louise Erdrich
“Police conducted a search of Dorris’s Minneapolis home less than two weeks before his death; among the items seized was a diary kept by one of his daughters.”
A Broken Life;http://www.salon.com/april97/dorris970421.html; Accessed 3/7/10
WARNING: Contains spoilers. Depressing as hell.
In one of his books, Michael Dorris tells a story. As a graduate student, he went to visit a Native American tribe in northern Canada. One day, an older local man and Dorris go out on the man’s small fishing boat. A huge storm blows up, surrounding them. The elder turns the boat to head for shore, but the motor dies. “Throw out the anchor,” the elder says to Dorris, “and we’ll try to ride it out.” Dorris dashes to the stern of the boat, seizes the anchor, and tosses it over the side before he notices that it is not tied to the coil of rope beneath his feet. They have no motor and no anchor. Twelve-foot swells slap the boat. “We’re going to die!” Dorris says.
The elder shakes his head. “We’re not going to die.”
“How can you say that? These waves are higher than the boat! We have no engine! How can you say we’re not going to die?”
The elder smiles. “We’re not going to die,” he says, “because this is too good a story.”
That story got me through some tough times, times when I was in despair, feeling the most helpless and the most alone. A tiny voice in my head would say, “When you get on the other side of this, it’s going to make a great story.”
Those words may have saved me. They didn’t save Michael Dorris. On April 10, 1997, in a New Hampshire hotel, Michael Dorris overdosed on prescription medication and ended his life.
In Dorris’s memoir of adopting a child with fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord, there’s another story. Dorris is pursing a single-parent adoption, and he’s male. He feels these are obstacles to be overcome. Preparing for a home visit by a social worker, he wants to look nurturing, so he bakes a batch of cookies. Then he worries. Are cookies too sugary? Do they make him look like an irresponsible parent? So he bakes some banana bread. But wait! What if the social worker doesn’t like banana bread? So he bakes some muffins—and some bread—and I think maybe a pie. The scene is hilarious and weird, and I didn’t know then that it carried in it the seeds of the disease he fought most of his life, bipolar disorder.
When I first read the cover flap for Louise Erdrich’s new novel Shadow Tag I didn’t make an immediate connection to her marriage to Michael Dorris. This slender book is about the implosion of the marriage of an “iconic Native American couple,” but the flap talks about a wife who discovers that her husband has been reading her diary, so creates a false diary for him to find. It sounded as if it might be darkly humorous.
Erdrich is as much a poet as a story-teller and this book is as authentic and honest as the blade of a sharp knife. Reading it, I felt like a voyeur. I felt like crying. Beyond the mastery of a poet and a story-teller at the top of her game, this is a story about a survivor, wondering why she lived to tell the tale. It is deeply personal. For me, sometimes it was too personal.
Gil is a painter, successful if not renowned, and his wife Irene is his most frequent subject. They are both Native American. Gil had been warned by a colleague that if he paints Native American subjects, he will become labeled, and he has. At first it seems as if the diaries are going to play a large part in this story, but Erdrich soon abandons that construct to let the story tell itself. The diaries are important though—the idea of both truth and falsity in the written word. Irene is not a writer or a scholar; she has not finished, or more accurately not even begun, her thesis on an historical painter of Native Americans. She still manages to use words, artfully, via the false diary, to manipulate and hurt Gil.
Critics and reviews have said that this is a story about what happens when love dies in a marriage, and Erdrich has not contradicted that. It doesn’t feel like love has died. Love has been starved, tortured and debased, but it isn’t dead. If it is dead, how am I to understand the end of the book, the choices these characters make?
Gil’s impulses, conceits and behaviors are extravagant, over the top, not unlike Michael Dorris’s baking spree in Broken Cord. I’ll let Erdrich show you something about Irene in her own words;
[Stony] drew his mother almost every day, in beautiful dresses. He gave his mother stripes and polka dots and if he made a flowery dress he put a matching flower in her hair. In every picture, at the end of his mother’s hand, Stony drew a stick with a little half-moon on the end of it.
…Look, said Irene, when she’d paged through her portraits and admired her carefully drawn outfits. There’s this thing on my hand, like another appendage, it’s always there. In every picture. What is it, Stony?
Irene was silent.
He thinks it’s part of you, said Florian. (p 54)
At risk in this tiny, terrible war are three children; Florian, a mathematical genius, Riel, the only girl, the middle child who reads up on disasters and stockpiles emergency supplies so that she will be able to save her family in the event of a disaster, and Stony, the youngest, a fearless artist like his father. Riel fantasizes global disasters; pandemics, floods and vampire assaults, because those are more comforting than the disintegration of her parents’ marriage and the abuse by her father. Riel uses WD-40 to lubricate all the hinges in the house except those on the door of her father’s studio, so that the children will hear when the door opens. She is the only one who stands up to him when he hits, yelling, “What are you doing?” startling and shaming him into stopping. Gil focuses most of his physical hostility on Florian. Irene intercedes, even photographing bruises with her cell phone, but cannot bring herself to leave Gil, or stop drinking.
Erdrich’s writing is honest and precise, so that when Gil cries out things like, “Don’t you want a father who has real feelings?” it reverberates. It’s real. An actual person said those words. Gil’s statements, his promises, ring with such sincerity and desperation that I hurt when I read them. I can see how his mind works; just as I can understand that Irene really does feel violated, exposed and used up by the deeply intimate pictures he has painted of her, pictures that are on display throughout the world. Like Gil, Irene is in constant pain, and she does not know what to do to end it, because she will not leave him.
The book has peaceful, beautiful moments, as when the family goes out, after a night snowfall, to play shadow tag. The book has passages of horrifying hilarity, like both of the visits to the marriage counselor. Irene and Gil, locked in their fatal embrace, nevertheless will close ranks against the intrusion of an outsider, even when it’s one they’ve chosen to help them. If the love has truly died here, then what holds them together? What binds Irene to Gil, if she really no longer loves him?
In the 1990s, my friend L and I heard Dorris and Erdrich speak together once, in San Francisco. I think they were promoting The Crown of Columbus, the book they wrote together. He was self-deprecating and funny. She was thoughtful, witty, insightful. They talked about Yellow Raft on Blue Water and Love Medicine, and the difficulty of representing the Native American culture honestly. They seemed like “an iconic Native American couple.” Dorris described them as soulmates, and it seemed true. We saw Dorris one other time, at Book Passage in Corte Madera. The event had advertized Erdrich, who was promoting Tales of Burning Love, but she had the flu and so Michael came in her place. He was funny, generous, sharing her work, pausing to compliment Amy Tan, who introduced him, telling tales on himself, making us laugh. We talked to him afterward, at the book-signing. I asked him how his son, the one in Broken Cord, was doing, and he told us Abel had died in a hit-and run accident. He took our expressions of shock and condolence as if we were friends, not complete strangers in a city half a continent away from his home. If I were looking for a word, I think I would say he was gracious.
When his death was reported, papers also said that there had been a potential child abuse allegation hanging over Dorris’s head at the time of his death. L absolutely did not believe it was possible. I had been working at child welfare for about a year then, and I was hesitant to dismiss the possibility. L was indignant with me. “How can you think that? We know them!” she said. It was Michael Dorris’s gift, his warmth, his openness, his charisma that made us feel that we knew him, knew them, when of course we didn’t at all.
I retained enough of that feeling, though, to flinch and bite my lip as I read parts of Shadow Tag. The correspondences are too strong; Gil’studio on the second floor of the house (Dorris’s office was on the second floor); three children caught in the crossfire—three younger children were still in the home, one of them made the allegation of abuse, and it was her diary that was retrieved by the police. The truth and falsity of language. Because of Dorris’s death, the allegations were never investigated. At first, it seems as if the power differential in Gil and Irene’s marriage is markedly different from Erdrich’s own; Irene’s complete exposure, with not an inch of her body, not a single expression on her face left private or secret, seemed unique to the book, until I remembered that Dorris talked about their writing as a “collaboration,” even implying that they wrote books together regardless of whose name was on the cover. There was an incipient scandal about who actually wrote what, especially when Erdrich began to win awards. Before Dorris’s death, he and Erdrich had faced a bitter civil court battle against one of their older children, a battle that had begun to make public the secrets of their marriage. It’s not so far a reach, symbolically, from Erdrich’s work to the vivid and intimate paintings Gil creates of Irene. And Irene lets him. She is a partner in his work, even though she feels humiliated.
Reading this book wasn’t like reading a well-developed literary novel about a disintegrating marriage. It was like watching two people I admired use teeth and claws to rip jagged holes in each other. Erdrich is hard on herself, herself in the persona of Irene, even if she is fair. This is art. It’s truly art, but it’s also Erdrich, thirteen years after the fact, processing the loss of the most crucial person in her life. Louise Erdrich, the wife and mother, made one choice, at that time, in that situation. What choice will her character make? And so, maybe, I do understand the ending the book. Maybe it really isn’t love that binds Irene to Gil, but guilt.
Because Erdrich is an artist, art is always the lifeline, even when it cuts your hands, or your heart, to ribbons. The wife may not survive the horror of the war; but art does, and lives to tell the tale.