Review of Louise Erdrich’s New Novel, “The Plague of Doves”

From Rocky Mountain News:

There’s a clue to the way Louise Erdrich’s mind works in a note at the beginning of her new novel, The Plague of Doves.

It’s a standard message stating that all the places and people in the book are imagined, but the author lists an exception, a character named Holy Track. “In 1897,” she writes, “at the age of thirteen, Paul Holy Track was hanged by a mob in Emmons County, North Dakota.”

Other writers hitting upon this intriguing and sad bit of history might construct a novel focused around Paul himself, but as Erdrich has demonstrated in her prior novels about an Ojibwe and French Canadian clan, she thinks in terms of generations. In this book, Erdrich embeds the detail in a larger narrative about relatives and neighbors that preceded or followed him. As in her other novels, she makes room for comedy next to tragedy and includes good doses of passion, from schoolgirl crushes to a college girl’s lesbian fling to forbidden romances among the elderly.

Erdrich’s panoramic new novel is centered on the Holy Track lynching, although Holy Track himself graces only a few pages. She reaches backward and forward in time to try to understand what, if any, meaning the ugly occurrence has, and her characters find that it’s nearly impossible to assign culpability when the forebears and descendents of people involved in the crime are so intermingled.

Erdrich fans will note that she has begun a new family’s story with The Plague of Doves, leaving behind the descendents of Nanapush and Pauline Puyat, whose connections I’d tried to keep up with on a garbled index card until Erdrich helpfully provided a genealogy chart in one of her best novels, 2001’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. But these new folks are still recognizably Erdrich people. There’s the randy, priest-baiting, trick-playing, storytelling, tragedy-scarred Mooshum, for example, a patriarch who will remind readers of Nanapush.

Many parts of this book have appeared previously as short stories in The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and the Best American Short Stories, The O. Henry Awards, and The Best American Mystery Stories anthologies, and it’s satisfying to learn how these disparate tales end up connecting.

The book begins with the murder of all members of a family except an infant (we later learn this is the crime for which Holy Track and two other Indian men are wrongly hanged). Then it moves to a section narrated by Evelina, a young Chippewa- French woman, who begins to learn the history of her family, the town of Pluto, and the nearby reservation through stories told by her mother’s father, whom she calls Mooshum, an Indian word for grandfather.

One of his favorite stories is that of the plague of doves that hit the town in 1896, devouring crops and beleaguering the people. Mooshum was serving as an altar boy in his priest older brother’s church during the drama of the birds. One day, during a fierce bird attack on an outdoor procession, Mooshum met the girl who would become his wife. They ran off together and eventually married, an act of heedless passion that is echoed by those of other members of their family.

Evelina explains, “We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers, and bureaucrats . . . yet this current of drama holds together the generations, I think, and my brother and I listened to Mooshum not only from suspense but for instructions on how to behave when our moment of recognition, or perhaps our romantic trial, should arrive.”

Evelina’s first brush with love is her crush on a boy at school named Corwin Peace (whom she later learns is a third or fourth cousin). She next develops a passion for her teacher, Sister Mary Anita, a homely woman Corwin dubs “Sister Godzilla,” whom Evelina admires for her skill at softball.

Corwin himself was the product of a twisted passion: an affair between the married John Wildstrand and a young woman named Maggie. When Maggie’s brother Billy threatens Wildstrand with a gun, to get money out of him to help raise Maggie’s baby, Wildstrand proposes that they kidnap and ransom his wife instead, to cover up for a larger sum that he wants to transfer to Maggie.

The crime unravels, and Billy goes off to Vietnam. When he comes back, he forms a religious sect with bizarre rules, such as the forbidding of names.

Every character in The Plague of Doves has a similar trove of stories in his or her family history, though some of the plot threads are stronger than others.

For example, one of the most touching and lovely tales in the book is that of Shamengwa, Mooshum’s brother, a crippled fiddler who plays beautiful music. On the other hand, the revelation of the true murderer of the family, which comes at book’s end, isn’t as satisfying because the murderer is not a character who has been on stage for much of the time.

But the overall novel is rich, ending with the true-to-life gradual depopulation of the Plains town where it is set. The town may be emptying of people, but it’s still filled with stories as numerous as the doves that descended one year, leading Mooshum to his love.

Jenny Shank’s fiction has appeared in Michigan Quarterly Review and other journals. She writes about books for NewWest.net and lives in Boulder.

The Plague of Doves

* By Louise Erdrich. HarperCollins, 320 pages, $25.95.

* Grade: A-

Story behind the stories

It’s not hard to guess where Louise Erdrich’s penchant for storytelling comes from. Raised in North Dakota, she’s the oldest of seven children. Her mother was French Ojibwe, her father German American, both teachers at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. With a large extended family, Erdrich had plenty of real-life characters and situations to draw on for her fiction.

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