THE PAINTED DRUM

By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins. 277 pp. $25.95

Haunted and haunting, Louise Erdrich's 10th novel navigates smoothly back and forth across the border that separates the living from the dead. Beginning in 1984 with her first novel, Love Medicine, and continuing through many volumes that developed the histories and fates of recurring characters, she has frequently described the ghostly tug of the dead on the people they leave behind. But never more explicitly than in this new book has she made so fluid a connection between the two worlds.

Once again employing the technique of alternating voices that worked so successfully in her previous novels, Erdrich tells three intertwined stories in The Painted Drum from the perspectives of several characters. Faye Travers, the introductory narrator, lives with her mother in a small New Hampshire town where the two women have developed a successful business. Dealing unsentimentally in "the stuff of life, or more precisely, the afterlife of stuff," Faye and her mother organize and sell dead people's valuables, with a specialty in Native American artifacts. Like Erdrich's, Faye's ancestry is part European and part Ojibwe, or Chippewa, and when she inspects the estate of a recently deceased neighbor whose grandfather was an Indian agent at the reservation in North Dakota where Faye's own grandmother was born, she discovers an object that seems to throb with spiritual energy.

It's a painted drum, huge and lavishly embellished and so dazzling that Faye, despite being thoroughly assimilated and unemotional about her heritage, is compelled to steal it. Drums, she later learns, are considered by the Ojibwe to be living things, "made for serious reasons by people who dream the details of their construction." Drums have the power to cure or kill, and they speak to one another. They must be offered food and tobacco and should never be placed on the ground or left alone. The drum that Faye steals, moreover, is a conduit between the living and the spirit world -- particularly, for special reasons, the spirits of little girls.

One of those girls is Faye's younger sister, who died in childhood by stepping defiantly off the high branch of an apple tree. Faye had stopped dreaming of her sister years ago, but now, with the appearance of the drum, the dreams begin again: In nightly visions her sister appears in a parallel life, complete with piano lessons and a new husband, "a dark man walking at a distance." It is those visions, perhaps, that encourage Faye to return the drum to the North Dakota Ojibwe reservation where its life began, and where the drum's history is related by the novel's second narrator, Bernard Shaawano, a technician at the reservation hospital.

Erdrich shifts the narrative backward in time, exchanging Faye's pragmatic, contemporary voice for the elliptical legend-spinning that distinguishes her best fiction. Bernard's story of his grandparents contains some familiar Erdrich themes (infidelity, revenge, guilt) and characters, most notably Fleur Pillager, who has been a major presence in no fewer than four of Erdrich's previous novels. Here, Bernard's grandmother Anaquot cheats on her husband with another man, bears his baby -- Fleur -- and takes off with Fleur and an older daughter to live with her new love. Along the way, when starving wolves threaten to overtake Anaquot's wagon, her older daughter is pushed -- or quite possibly throws herself -- into the mob of ravening animals. Later, the girl's bones are found by Anaquot's grieving husband, whose name is Old Shaawano. He uses his daughter's bones to make the painted drum, following the instructions of the wolf girl, who visits him while he's sleeping.

Two generations later, as chronicled in the novel's hair-raising final section, three young children left alone in a freezing house outside the reservation hear the drum's music as they struggle to save themselves from starvation and hypothermia.

Resourceful and assiduous, Erdrich's dead are above all caretakers. Among the loveliest images in the book are those of apparitions who appear in dreams, always to guide and instruct, never to torment. During the period when Old Shaawano is building the drum, at night on the borderland between consciousness and sleep, he senses his ancestors around him, hears "murmuring and low arguments, tinkling bells and footsteps . . . . He felt secure as a child snuggled up in the corner of the cabin while the grown-ups talk low and laugh around the stove."

If the dead are instrumental in nurturing the living, the natural world is immersed in its own cycle of ruin and repair. "What grows best does so at the expense of what's beneath," observes Faye in the woods near her house. "A white birch feeds on the pulp of an old hemlock and supports the grapevine that will slowly throttle it." In the same way, she learns, the howl of the wolf "is the music of all the broken and hunted creatures who survive and persist and will not be eliminated. For there they are, along with the ravens, destroyed and returned." With fearlessness and humility, in a narrative that flows more artfully than ever between destruction and rebirth, Erdrich has opened herself to possibilities beyond what we merely see -- to the dead alive and busy, to the breath of trees and the souls of wolves -- and inspires readers to open their hearts to these mysteries as well. *

Donna Rifkind is a regular contributor to Book World.