By Louise Erdrich
HarperCollins. 313 pp. $25.95
Reviewed by Sandra Scofield
Louise Erdrich begins her powerful new novel,
The Plague of Doves
, with an eerie, disturbing moment out of time - a baby in a crib, a man with a gun - conveyed with the tense compression of a poem.
Then the story opens into the bright intelligence of a teenage narrator who quickly immerses us in her family's affections and lore. This is Erdrich territory, with its high drama, wry humor, exalted and earthy passion, and bold, graceful, circling pattern of narrative.
Once again, she builds a narrative around multiple generations of a group of families living on or near a Chippewa (Ojibwe) reservation in North Dakota.
This time her fictional setting is Pluto, a white town where many Michif (mixed-blood) families live. Like the mythical Argus of Erdrich's debut novel,
, Pluto is hardscrabble, with a history of injustice.
The roots of the story are in a terrible crime committed in 1911. A Pluto farm family was murdered, only a baby spared. In the aftermath, three innocent Indians were lynched by white neighbors. Seraph "Mooshum" Milk survived. The longest-lived character in the novel and a storyteller, he embodies tribal memory.
Yet the story is not the tale of retribution you might expect. For one thing, whites have power; Indians have history. Destiny is played out in the passions and foibles of fallible people.
Erdrich, who will speak at 8 tonight at the Central Library of the Free Library of Philadelphia, tells stories about folks connected by blood, and the strategy of the novel is this: Stories add up. Plot is organized around tangled memory and the evolution of families through much of the 20th century. Characters and events recur and cohere. Each chapter contributes to a mosaic of the native community. In a surprising departure from the novel's communal consciousness, the ending reveals a white character's discovery of the truth about the long-ago murders.
Lovers ground the novel, their stories told in a rotation of characters' voices. Evelina, child of a Chippewa-French mother and a white father who teaches in the Indian Affairs reservation school, has a crush on Corwin Peace in sixth grade. Mooshum is her beloved grandfather, who once fell in love with a girl while they fought a plague of doves. As an old man, he writes frantic love letters to Evelina's Aunt Neve Harp, who is compiling newsletters about the town's history. (She asks, "What did the Indians do for firewood?")
A steady presence in the novel, Mooshum provides much humor, then turns out to be more complicated than he appears. Judge Antone Coutts, a man who had a long affair with a married white woman, courts Evelina's Aunt Geraldine. Marn Wolde, a farmer's daughter, is seduced by Corwin's uncle, Billy Peace, into not just a volatile marriage, but a cult.
Erdrich conveys a great range of love and sex: tender and raw, funny and scary, forthright and devious. The descendants of perpetrators and victims intermarry. The youngest generation discovers they are living out threads of the past even as they move into the changed world of the 1970s. In college, Evelina reads Anäis Nin, reconnects with Corwin, and flirts with madness.
The past includes a harrowing winter expedition to claim wilderness land tracts before the railroad comes through. It includes passion for music, literature and science that inspires and connects characters. The density of detail and the extravagance of incident, characteristic of Erdrich's work, are pleasures of the novel.
Mooshum's brother Shamengwa plays the violin masterfully, and tells Evelina how he came by it, in a tale that includes a canoe race and a vision. Marn Wolde's entrapment in her husband's great religious experiment leads her to snake-handling, violent sex, and a fight for her children. Mooshum and Shamengwa shamelessly taunt the town priest with ribaldry and refusals to repent. A banker fakes his wife's kidnapping in order to conceal that the "ransom" is for his pregnant mistress.
The Plague of Doves
is packed with drama, but one thing does not neatly lead to another. Relationships are shaped not only by what characters do, but by what they remember or learn as history is constantly revised. Lives play out in loops, picking up more and more connections. The digressive narrative winds and unfurls in shifts of time and point of view. How could Erdrich's story be told in any other way?
Each chapter is contained and satisfying; in fact, eight sections have been published over the last decade as independent stories. One does not necessarily lead to the next; instead of chronology, Erdrich uses juxtaposition as an organizer. Occasionally, the novel may seem disjunctive, but yes, it does add up.
The Plague of Doves
references Louis Riel, the famous Canadian leader of the Métis resistance, as well as Paul Holy Track, who was hanged by a mob in 1897 at age 13. Scenes of shocking injustice pack an emotional wallop, but the novel does not have an angry political undertone.
Overall, it is compassionate and celebratory, and remarkable for the clarity and integrity of Erdrich's vision. Family bonds are deep and wide. Love is sustaining. Native people survive. More, they know who they are, and they live their own way.