Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich


There is a red diary hidden in plain sight. Irene continues to write in it even after she realizes Gil is secretly reading it. She writes, but she writes lies to entrap him. Irene keeps her own personal journal at the bank in a safe deposit box. She locks away her innermost truths. The father of her three children begins to doubt his paternity because of what he has read in her red diary. The gaps and fissures created between Irene’s red diary and her blue book at the bank reveal how small breaches of trust and invasions of privacy between a man and wife is a game of shadow tag.

Erdrich tells the story of a man and a woman who have three children; each character so familiar to me they feel like home and I’d know them if I bumped into them at the grocery. After 20 years of reading her books peopled with folks from Minnesota with or without Indian blood, these people are familiar and their real stories are tragic. One of the things I love about Erdrich’s writing is that she makes the dilution of Indian blood the subtext of her quintessentially American stories. The mixed heritage of characters is laid lightly in descriptive details and plot advancement; particularly in the voices of Irene and Gil’s children.

She has the gift of telling her stories with each character speaking as narrator by chapter. Each telling of the story in its turn is her exquisite style of writing. And in this new title, Erdrich adds another layer or two of complexity in the tale-ing with diaries and journals and this novel making the genre a trope for what is real. Its meaning and the truth reside in the reader of the varying narrative accounts.

Since Love Medicine, her first novel, I’ve been an avid reader of Erdrich’s books. The Beet Queen and Tracks, her second and third novels proved equally compelling. She does not require her readers to have read her previous work; though certainly if a reader has done so the reading proves richer. Four Souls had an excerpt in the New Yorker that had me ordering the book rush order. This is her thirteenth novel. She’s also published a collection of short stories, three books of poetry, five children’s titles, and two non-fiction books. Erdrich can write.

She can speak, too. I’ve heard her give a reading (Athens, Georgia, late 1980s). Louise is not someone I know personally, but she’s the kind of person I would like to know. Having followed her career, I do know she has loved and lost her husband, Michael Dorris; for many years they were quite the celebrity couple in academic and writing circles. Life has not been so easy for her but the writing has been good. As a reader I am grateful to her for solving deep spiritual generational family puzzles; sometimes my own and sometimes someone close to me just at the moment I needed to ‘get it’.

If you’ve never read anything by Louise Erdrich before now, this is a perfect novel to indulge yourself in for the pure pleasure in the craft of writing. You don’t need to know a thing about her or her previous novels. It stands entirely on its own as a work of genius. 

The premise of love undermined by distrust makes it a quick read. I could not put it down. What happens between a man and a woman when the day to day rages of passion become everyday? And what if that mundane experience is wild passionate love? Irene and Gil are in love and madness descends when the years roll on and Irene is still the primary subject of all his paintings. Her image is what he sells. He wants others to consume her, too. To be an object of sexual arousal day in and day out for his pleasure and business takes its toll. 

I won’t reveal the tragic ending; you never see it coming. The beginning begs you to enter:

“I have two diaries now…You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother. It was very sweet of you…..After quite a lot of searching, I expect, you have found my red diary. You have been reading it in order to discover whether I am deceiving you.”

Gil suspects Irene may be having an affair with one of his friends. Irene wants to be left alone, in privacy; seeking solitude desperately. Going to the bank and sitting in the tiny cubicle day after day to write in her blue notebook, it is where she confesses to her husband her deception. So begins the twisted tale. 

Page one: “The second diary, what you might call my real diary, is the one I am writing in now.” And so begins a soul searing look at the depths of love and its darkest pools.

Put the book on your holiday gift list for yourself. Or check it out at the library. I got mine through Book of the Month Club. Believe it or not I’ve been a member since the 1980s. I think I got my copy of Louise Erdrich’s The Bingo Palace free on bonus points.

If you like Shadow Tag, you might like Louise Erdrich’s other books. I’ve learned a lot about good writing from studying her techniques. She’s a most remarkable writer.

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