In 1911, five members of a family – parents, a teenage girl, and an eight- and a four-year-old boy – were murdered. In the heat of things, a group of men ran down a party of Indians and what occurred was a shameful piece of what was called at the time “rough justice.” – from The Plague of Doves, page 297 –
An unsolved murder from the early part of the twentieth century is the center of Louise Erdrich’s stunning novel The Plague of Doves. Set in the white town of Pluto, on the edge of a reservation in North Dakota, the book introduces multiple characters with blood ties to each other. Many of the characters are of mixed blood: Ojibwe and white. There is the young Evelina Harp and her brother Joseph who grow up on the reservation capturing lizards and listening to the exaggerated stories of their grandfather and his brother. There is Judge Antone Bazil Coutts whose affair with a married woman shadows his life. There is Corwin Peace, a handsome boy with a penchant for illegal activities and a gift for music. Evelina’s grandfather, Mooshum, holds the stories of the past and resists the pull of the Catholic Church; his brother, Shamengwa, is his comedic sidekick whose fiddle playing captivates the community.
Louise Erdrich’s novel unfolds over decades and through the multiple narratives of her complex characters, linking their lives and gradually revealing the mystery of who murdered the family in 1911. Over the course of the story, Erdrich explores forbidden love, family ties and dark secrets. As with all her novels, there is a deep sense of Native American culture, the importance of land, and the convoluted and sorrowful history of native people.
I saw that the loss of their land was lodged inside of them forever. This loss would enter me, too. Over time, I came to know that the sorrow was a thing that each of them covered up according to their character – my old uncle through his passionate discipline, my mother through strict kindness and cleanly order. As for my grandfather he used the patient art of ridicule. – from The Plague of Doves, page 84 –
Erdrich’s writing is lyrical and evokes vibrant imagery. She is a patient writer, one who carefully lays out the story and builds her characters. Spending time in her novels is like taking a journey to another place and time. I have mentioned in other reviews of Erdrich’s work that she is the consummate storyteller – and in The Plague of Doves this is once again apparent. Erdrich’s Pulitzer-nominated novel opens with the murder, then branches off into what at first seems like disparate stories…character studies, if you will. Eventually, Erdrich connects all these threads and returns to the question of who committed the murder of a family all those years before. It is a thrilling, “aha” moment in the novel.
Despite the dark focus of the novel, Erdrich’s sardonic sense of humor which is informed with irony, provides the reader with some lightness. Some of the funniest parts of the book are those which involve the local priest’s visit to Evelina’s grandfather and great uncle who throw back shots of whiskey and tell outrageous stories which inflame the priest.
The Plague of Doves is the third novel I have read by this amazing author. It is a challenging read in many ways with its interwoven stories, and movement back and forth in time. But as with all Erdrich novels, it is intensely satisfying. Patient readers who love symbolism and complexity in their books, will find themselves consumed by The Plague of Doves which has been nominated for such prestigious prizes as the 2009 Pulitzer, the 2010 International IMPAC Dublin Literary award, and the 2009 Dayton Literary Peace Prize.
This is a literary novel not to be missed. Highly recommended.