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February 7, 2010

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A couple corroding

THE first lurch comes four lines in. A woman named Irene America is writing in one of her diaries. She is keeping two: one real, one fake. "You gave me the first book in order to record my beginning year as a mother," she writes. "It was very sweet of you."

But something about that sentence is off. Could it be the faintness of the praise? The flatness of the tone? Perhaps it's that the person being addressed is meant never to see these words, because we're glimpsing the blue notebook in which Irene records her true thoughts and feelings.

She keeps it in a safety deposit box at the bank, away from the prying eyes of her husband, the "you" of those early lines. The other notebook, the red diary, is kept in a filing cabinet in her basement office at home. Irene knows her husband has been reading it in secret, and she contrives to use it as a weapon, setting down lies meant to torment him, to smoke him out and ultimately to free herself from marriage.

"Shadow Tag" is unlike any other Louise Erdrich novel. That isn't to say it's devoid of the Native American themes that permeate her many previous books.

Both Irene and her husband, Gil, are of Indian heritage. Raised by a white mother, Gil clings to his paternal "mishmash of Klamath and Cree and landless Montana Chippewa." Irene also grew up with a single mother, a political activist who "dragged her to everything Ojibwe."

Their shared culture closely informs both their careers. Gil, an artist, paints portraits of his wife, often in "cruel" or "humiliating" poses evocative of the history of whites' mistreatment of Indians.

Irene is a historian. Or she would be if she hadn't stalled partway through her Ph.D thesis on Louis Riel, "the depressed metis patriot." When the novel begins, she's at work on a new study, of George Catlin, "the 19th-century painter of Native Americana," whose subjects, she reminds herself, "would sicken and die soon after" he finished their portraits.

Yet Gil and Irene's ancestral ties are overshadowed by the corrosive way their identities have become grafted together. Gil's livelihood hinges on rendering and selling images of his wife's naked body. Irene's initial thesis subject was "distantly related" to Gil's family.

Although not especially short, the novel has a pace that's mercifully fast. But we miss something if we approach this book simply as fiction. "Shadow Tag" is a portrait of an "iconic" marriage on its way to dissolution. And Louise Erdrich has been in just such a marriage.


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