In her new novel, Shadow Tag, writer Louise Erdrich turns a diary into a deadly device for bringing about the final collapse of a marriage. As is often the case in Erdrich's books, her main characters are Native American. But in this novel their ancestry is mostly a backdrop for a shattering family drama that leaves no one unscathed.
Irene America and her husband, Gil, have three children, and their lives are tied together domestically and professionally. Irene is a scholar who can't seem to finish her thesis. Gil is a Native American artist, famous for his portraits of his wife. Gil's volatile temper keeps the children in a constant state of fearful watchfulness, wondering if and when the family will fall apart.
As Louise Erdrich tells it, Shadow Tag is a book she had to write..
"I found myself writing about this without really wanting to," Erdrich says. "It was an insistent book. And there were times where I really dreaded going up to keep going on it, but it was as though I couldn't stop."
Though Erdrich says the book is not based on her own life, there are echoes of her life in it. During the 1980s Erdrich and writer Michael Dorris were a literary golden couple. Dorris, who was also part Native American, was her mentor and then her literary partner. Together they helped put Native American literature on the map.
They were also the parents of six children: three adopted, three biological. The couple's public image began to fall apart when one of their adopted sons accused them of child abuse. Then in 1996 Dorris was accused of sexually abusing at least one of his daughters. Just before he was expected to be formally charged, Dorris committed suicide. Erdrich says as she wrote Shadow Tag, she knew comparisons to her life were inevitable.
"I thought about it all through the book," she says. "That is why it's constructed in a way that ... I moved it farther and farther from my personal reality. By the end of the book, I didn't feel that it had a bearing on it."
Erdrich says that she thinks "people who write store up their emotions and use their emotional experiences almost as a sort of currency from one book to the next." But she insists that clues about her marriage to Dorris aren't in Shadow Tag.
"I've had so many experiences by now that I have a lot to draw on," Erdrich says. "I'm 55, and what happened in my marriage happened quite some time ago. So I think that if I was going to write about it directly I would have done so right afterward."
The central device in Shadow Tag, a fake diary, is drawn from Erdrich's life. As the book begins, Irene discovers that Gil has been reading her diary. So she starts a new one, in which she writes the truth. She fills the one that Gil reads with untruths and half-truths that instill him with doubts about her fidelity. Erdrich says when she was in college someone read her diary and that is when she first had the idea of planting a false diary. Erdrich, who has kept diaries all her life, says she thinks of them as sacred.
"I think one keeps a diary after a time imagining that no one would ever violate it. It seems unthinkable. So that when it happens, its a great breach of trust," Erdrich says.
In Shadow Tag, Gil's breach of trust is revealed during a casual dinnertime conversation that couldn't seem less like an invasion of privacy on its face. But as Irene manipulates Gil's emotions with her false diary, the tension in the household begins to spin out of control. When the end comes it is both surprising and shocking. Erdrich says she thinks of the book as a psychological thriller.
"I was, I suppose you'd say, addicted to writing the book, so I wanted it to be a kind of addictive book, in which the reader needed to know immediately what happened to the persons in it. In which they became fascinated with the people and wanted to know how this was all going to turn out," Erdrich says. "I think from the first page, you wonder how can this possibly turn out, what's going to happen to these people, how will the children make it? Will they make it?"
Erdrich, a onetime literary phenom and winner of many writing prizes, says she wants the books she writes — and the ones she reads — to be irresistible.
"I always want the books to be page turners," Erdrich says. "I love having stories where people want to know the endings. That's the kind of book I like reading. Maybe I'm not a very intellectual reader at all. I like stories."
According its author, Shadow Tag has no message. It is simply a story that she felt compelled to write. And if it weren't for Erdrich's gift for storytelling, this tale of a marriage gone wrong might be hard to take.