As the story unfolds we learn the significance of the images on the drum. If you've read Willa Cather's My Antonia you will know the folk tale of the wedding sleigh ride through the snow at night and the hungry wolves which chase the procession and the sad fate of the bride. This folk tale is also re-visited in The Painted Drum.
While I was fascinated with the history of the drum, I really liked the character of Faye Travers and her life with her mother and sometime lover, the sculptor, Krahe. Refreshing to have a female central character in a novel who is in her fifties. Erdrich writes so beautifully. When Faye lies awake at night she describes how her house releases the day's footsteps on the old pine floorboards and the sounds of the house at night resonate through the drum.
I now want to read The Plague of Doves.