Welcome to the TLC Book Tour for Shadow Tag
It is a cold winter night in Minneapolis and a storm has knocked out power to homes there. So Irene, Gil, and their three children, Florian, Riel, and Stoney, each take a candle and go for a walk. They end up on the ball field in the park where, as a child, Irene played shadow tag under the street lights on summer evenings. Irene teaches her family to play tag by chasing and touching shadows, rather than one’s fellow players. The children run, dip, whirl, and leap away so that their shadows unfurl beneath them, as the dogs run in circles around them. Gil finds a place just under the light where he hides his shadow tightly under his feet and, as Irene and the children move in on him, leaps out at them. It is a rare and unparalleled moment of pure joy in the lives of a dysfunctional and unhappy family.
Gil has found fame and success by painting Irene America in a variety of settings and poses, some extremely provocative. Both Gil and Irene are Native Americans who grew up with single mothers and barely knew their fathers. Both are volatile. They exist within a codependent relationship that is slowly but surely destroying them and their children. Gil is controlling and possessive; Irene drinks too much. And the children are very aware of what is happening to their family, even if they are unable to fully articulate the particulars. Stoney, the youngest, born on 9/11/01, is particularly vulnerable and impressionable, as demonstrated by the portraits he draws of his mother, always depicting her with an odd shaped right hand. Only after careful examination does it become clear that the crescent-shape is actually the wine glass that Irene seems never to be without.
As part of his passive-aggressive need to dominate Irene in a futile attempt to hold on to her and the marriage, Gil begins reading her diary. He is convinced that she has been unfaithful to him. When she learns of his betrayal, she determines to get revenge by maintaining two diaries. In her red diary, stored at the back of the filing cabinet in her office, she writes for Gil’s benefit, spinning wild tales about other men that she knows will enrage him and, hopefully, finally convince him that the marriage is over and he must leave. She has asked him to go numerous times, but he refuses, telling her at one point, “Nobody gets out alive.” Ironically, it was Gil who gave Irene her first diary when their oldest child was born, the gift intended to be a means for her to chronicle her journey as a mother.
But as the story opens, Irene secures a safety deposit box at a local bank to which she escapes and writes in a blue notebook that she keeps hidden away there.
It has happened to all of us at one time or another. You find yourself in the presence of a couple. Without meaning to do so, you glimpse an intensely personal interaction between them — a look, a touch, a smile, a nod — the meaning of which is comprehended and appreciated only by those two. Realizing that you have inadvertently intruded, you immediately divert your glance, perhaps offering a wan, apologetic smile when they notice you, as you redirect your attention. You may be loathe to admit that in some small way you enjoyed the voyeuristic glimpse into their relationship. Perhaps it provided you with new insight into or understanding of their lives.
Reading Shadow Tag feels like one long, intense such peek at the intimate relationship between a husband and wife, the details about which you know you should be neither privy nor curious. From the very first page of the story, the reader is instantly drawn into Irene and Gil’s tormented existence, unable to pull away even though reading about their struggle feels like being sucked, along with them, into a vortex.
At the outset, Irene deliberately sets out to deceive Gil, who seeks to control Irene in order to maintain some semblance of control over his own life and sanity. Irene writes in her red diary, “I think I’m going to lose my mind over what I’m doing,” compelling the reader to find out what it is that she is doing and why. Erdrich invites her readers to observe the dysfunctional dance that is Gil and Irene’s marriage, gradually revealing the details of how they came together and the myriad ways in which they are destroying themselves and their children. The tension mounts with each chapter and it soon becomes obvious that Gil and Irene’s story cannot end happily unless both of them are wiling to make major changes in the way they taunt, tease, and abuse each other psychologically and emotionally, as well as, it is revealed eventually, physically.
But Gil and Irene are clearly two halves of an unhealthy whole, as evidenced when they attempt marriage counseling. They are playful and immature, as well, uniting to frustrate and vex the unwitting therapist before returning home and resuming their hurtful tete-a-tete. They are, in fact, so codependent upon each other that Irene’s pleas for Gil to leave ring almost as hollow as his continual professions of love and devotion to her. It is painfully clear that neither Irene nor Gil really understands how to love another human being or live without the other and, in Gil’s case, his life’s work, painting portraits of Irene, has actually contributed to their demise. As he has played with light and shadows in his paintings, so have Gil and Irene played shadow tag with their own emotional well-being, and that of their children.
Erdrich’s prose is almost poetic, slipping from Irene’s voice as she writes in her red diary, setting up Gil’s jealousy, anger, and resentment, to Irene’s voice as she pens her thoughts and feelings in the blue notebook, and then to a third-person narrator describing the action. Her infusion into the story of Native American themes and history is particularly effective, especially as she describes Riel’s fascination with George Catlin and her determination to be prepared in the event of a cataclysmic event to defend her home and family like a proud warrior. Meanwhile, Gil escapes his studio and the stresses of his life by visiting a local museum and spending hours considering his favorite paintings displayed there, including Rembrandt’s “Lucretia,” while little Stoney is able to perfectly draw anything he observes. Yet, for all their considerable talent, Gil, Irene, and their children are unable to break out of the cycle of destruction in which they are trapped.
This was my first experience with Erdrich’s writing. It likely won’t be my last. Her nuanced, layered narrative is both thought-provoking and haunting. Gil, Irene, and their family are fascinating characters not soon forgotten. I enthusiastically recommend Shadow Tag if you wish to read a book that will invite you to reflect upon your own life and the ways in which you may be consciously or unconsciously sabotaging your own relationships. Have you played shadow tag lately?
Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one copy of Shadow Tag free of charge from the author in conjunction with the TLC Book Tours review and virtual book tour program. I was not required to write a positive review in exchange for receipt of the book; rather, the opinions expressed in this review are my own. This disclosure complies with 16 Code of Federal Regulations, Part 255, “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”