A violin that seemingly causes the inadvertent death of one brother in the Peace family at the hands of another magically calls out to its next owner, an Ojibwe Indian named Shamengwa, after drifting about a lake in an empty canoe for twenty years, only to return to the modern-day Peace family via theft. A man quietly evolves his stamp collecting to include "disaster stamps," that is, stamps on letters associated with tragedies such as the Titanic. A locust-like invasion of white doves in 1896 accidentally brings together Seraph Milk, known now as Mooshum, with his life's love, Junesse, to form the family line of the young Evelina Harp, part white and part Ojibwe. A violin recording that reaches a "strange sweetness" lulls a crying infant to sleep and perhaps saves her life amidst a horrific family slaughter. Many years later, a violin once again exacts a form of revenge on that infant's family's murderer.
Louise Erdrich brings together the great silent expanses of the northern plains, the uneasy truce between White and Native Americans, and a touch of pantheistic, tribal mysticism to tell the story of three generations' residents in the unlikely town of Pluto, North Dakota. Ostensibly named before the planet Pluto was discovered, this Pluto nevertheless contains elements of both the mythological Greek underworld and the end of the solar system. If the end of the world (North Dakota) can have its own, slowly dying end of the world, Pluto is it.
The 1911 tragedy that left behind the surviving infant involved a brutal family slaying of a farm family - parents, a teenage girl, and her two younger brothers. In a racially-charged act of vigilante justice, three Indian men and a young boy who happened upon the murder scene several days later are hanged by a gang of white men. Miraculously, the boy survives the hanging. These twin acts of violence, set against the arbitrariness of Pluto's founding and the harshness of prairie life at a reservation's edge, create the stage upon which the town's Twentieth Century lives are played out in a context surpassingly unaffected by the rest of Twentieth Century history.
The balance of Erdrich's story chronicles the circuitous and complex interplay of white and Indian lives in the generations since those early days. Even as the vitality of their town fades away, the residents of Pluto live out their lives beneath the unsettling racist overhang of those unresolved murders and the subsequent "rough justice" meted out by whites to an innocent group of Ojibwes. Despite these faint currents of unease, family lines cross, races intermarry, and the descendants of victims intermingle with the descendants of victimizers.
Erdrich tells her story through multiple voices, predominantly those of the modern-day adolescent Evelina Harp and her uncle by marriage, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts. Their stories are interrupted by that of Marn Wolde, whose bizarre marriage to the cult-like Billy Peace forms one of the novel's strangest and most disassociated interludes, As each voice is heard and then heard again, the lives of Pluto's residents, past and present, slowly take form and cohere into relationships, patterns, and even repetitions. Judge Coutts, for example, reluctantly sells his house to the developer husband of his long-term paramour only to have the developer experience an echo of the dove plague when he sets out to demolish the structure. In the book's final pages a new, fourth voice appears, that of Doctor Cordelia Lochren, and it is through her workmanlike testimonial that many of Pluto's most enduring mysteries are finally resolved.
THE PLAGUE OF DOVES is a story of ancestral legacies passed down through and between families and races, tracing the manner in which those legacies affect the lives of descendants. Some are mystical and some are explicitly acknowledged, while others are ever present but never mentioned. Through it all, however, we are in Ms. Erdrich's view products both of our own making as well as all that came before us.
When Seraph Milk, known as Mooshum to his young granddaughter Evelina, haltingly tells her about a brutal 1911 crime in which he was involved, he reveals the underlying horrors which unite and divide all the families she knows. Mooshum was one of four Ojibwe Indians from Pluto, North Dakota, who were captured and strung up for the gruesome murder of the Lochrens, a white family. Only Mooshum, among the Indians captured in the area immediately after the murders, miraculously survived the vigilante hangings, and while, ironically, only an infant daughter of the Lochrens, overlooked by the murderer or murderers, survived the massacre.
The murder and lynching reverberate through the relationships within both the Indian and white communities over almost one hundred years. Erdrich is at her best here, telling overlapping family stories--horrifying, loving, hilarious, mystical, passionate, lyrical, and thoughtful--as she reveals life in the Native American and white communities from multiple points of view, across time. As the characters evolve, Erdrich reveals her major theme--the diminishing hold the distant past has on successive generations as each generation creates and feeds on its own past. The influx of white residents to Pluto, numerous intermarriages, and the influence of Christian priests, among other effects, all reduce the emphasis on shared Native American values.
Filling her novel with vibrant characters who reveal their lives and stories--and often cast new light on old stories--Erdrich creates a kaleidoscope of swirling images and moods, filled with irony. The drama of the murder and hangings shares time and space with hilarious scenes in which Mooshum and his unregenerate friends taunt the local priest. Ironically, other members of his family consider becoming priests. Evelina, the third generation, looks for answers, not in religion, but in psychology and love. Another young man Evelina's age becomes an evangelical preacher with a large commune and a snake-handling wife. Though the past and tradition exert their influence, they become less important to subsequent generations, who look toward the future, and by the end of the novel, "the dead of Pluto now outnumber the living."
Though some of Erdrich's character sketches and stories end rather abruptly, perhaps that, too, is part of the thematic structure--in real life such stories also end abruptly, as times and people change. With a far greater emphasis on characters and their stories than we have seen in Erdrich's most recent, more plot-based novels, and with a grand canopy of theme overarching all, this novel is a triumph--big, broad, thoughtful, and ultimately, important. n Mary Whipple
The Painted Drum: A Novel (P.S.)
The Master Butchers Singing Club (P.S.)
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse: A Novel
The Beet Queen: A Novel (P.S.)
The Porcupine Year
I'll admit that I was disappointed with The Plague of Doves. I've read a little of Erdrich's work in the past, and this novel had certainly drawn some praise. It has its moments. You see many instances in the book of Erdrich's genius, but it doesn't add up, somehow, into a full novel for me. The whole thing just didn't quite live up to expectations.
The novel feels a little more like a collection of stories than like a novel, though the characters are all related to one another in some way. Some of these stories are wonderful. The most living sections of the book are those that possess a folkloric quality and have to do with the older members of the novel's community, Mooshun and Shamengwa. Mooshun, now a grandfather, is sort of a trickster figure at moments (his pranks on the Catholic priest are the funniest and most entertaining parts of the book), and his storytelling is the key thread to tie the novel together. Years ago, he was the only survivor among a party of Obijwe hung for the murder of a white family (they were, of course, innocent). That story, and the mysteries that surround it, is gradually told throughout the novel, with information added by multiple characters, and most of the characters are shaped in some way by the tragedy. Shamengwa, Mooshun's brother, provides a sort of spiritual center to the novel, as he plays music from his violin that gives voice to sorrows that truths that transcend words.
Other stories within the book, however, do not seem to fit with these. Particularly, the middle section tells the story of Billy Peace and his family as he founds a cult and as his family tries to survive his increasing sadism. That middle section is much more violent and grotesque than the rest of the book and seems, in terms of plot, tone, and theme, to be very disconnected from the other stories. Some stories, such as Evelina's, are fine in and of themselves but seem to stifle the development of the other trains of thought in the book.
I guess that's my main issue with the book, which may not be an issue for others. Once I finished the book, I found myself thinking that it was like a puzzle with many pieces which don't fit together. No thought or impression or image is brought to completion. It was difficult for me not to contrast The Plague of Doves with the last book I read, Jhumpa Lahiri's story collection Unaccustomed Earth, in which many separate stories do seem to work in harmony with one another. The Plague of Doves contains many great moments. It's certainly a readable and often enjoyable book. But its disparate parts fail to work together to create something entirely memorable.
on May 8, 2008
This is my first novel by this author, and it will probably win a major award this year. That being said, I was glad when, for some unknown reason, I turned to the end of the book halfway through and noticed in the acknowledgements that it had originally appeared as short stories in various periodicals. That explained to me the disjointed nature of the narrative, and I was somewhat relieved at my bewilderment.
"When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape." (p. 268) The story must have a shape, and this one falls short. It reads like the short stories that it was. I would argue that it is individual stories of individual characters - albeit well-written stories - with no real plot.
A family tree on the inside cover would have helped too. Ms. Erdrich may have lived with her characters for years, but I hadn't, and as another reviewer wrote, it was easy to forget who was related to whom.
Nevertheless, I give it 3 stars for the some of the more interesting short stories and characters.
The reader should be forewarned that THE PLAGUE OF DOVES is more of a collection of short stories than a traditional novel. The "novel" is only loosely constructed around an early 20th century murder of a farm family near fictional Pluto, North Dakota, after which three Ojibway men were wrongfully accused and lynched.
Many of the same characters move in and out of the various stories. The Milk family is the most compelling. Seraph Milk or "Mooshum," and his brother Shamengwa were alive at the time of the lynchings. Mooshum's granddaughter, Evelina is a modern-era voice. Mooshum was almost hanged along with the other three Ojibways. He has turned into a loveable old man who offers comic relief in his dealings with the local Catholic priest. At one point, when his brother Shamengwa dies, the Catholic priest gets them mixed up and delivers a eulogy for Mooshum who is sitting in a pew grinning at the clergyman.
Evelina appeals more to our heartstrings. She's a college student and parttime waitress at one of the few remaining businesses in Pluto. She has a boyfriend, Corwin Peace, who is related to Cuthbert Peace, one of the three Indians lynched after the farm family was murdered. He turns to taking and selling drugs, but is saved by Shamengwa's violin, which has mystical properties. One of her teachers, Sister Mary Anita Buckendorf, is a descendant of one of the German farmers who hanged Cuthbert and the other two Indians. Evelina nicknames her "Godzilla" because of her unfortunate protruding chin, but regrets it when Corwin begins to antagonize the nun as well. Evelina eventually goes to work at an insane asylum where she falls in love with one of the female patients, complicating her relationship with Corwin. Evelina's plot line is never fully resolved. Perhaps it will be in a future edition of the NEW YORKER.
Erdrich works hard at establishing connections between the tormenters and the abused over three generations. One of the tormenters' progeny even marries a descendant of one of the hanged Indians. Erdrich manages to tack on an ending during which we find out who really killed the farm family. The town doctor's identity also furnishes a surprising twist.
on June 6, 2008
I am a huge Erdrich fan, and it pains me to say that this book, like Last Report from Little No Horse, seems to have two or three monumental chapters that stand above the rest--the chapters that have also been published as short stories--and many of the other chapters seem to be a way from getting from one mountain to the next. Though it is not in my mind one of her best books, it is still an EXCELLENT book--even the weakest of Erdrich's books are brilliantly conceived and written. I also applaud the overall theme and message of the book: that one act of violence can affect generations of people, and that we must work to uncover the racist inequities of the past to heal the present. Recommended.
on August 2, 2009
I am generally a fan of Erdrich, but cannot recommend this book. As stated in other posts, the story is disjointed, the plethora of names and relationships very difficult to keep track of, and many of the characters are not particularly well drawn. I was never truely drawn in by either the plot or the characters, and some of the stories went nowhere. It also was not as evocative of the Indian culture nor did it have the sense of place that I've enjoyed so much in her other novels. In the end, I still wasn't sure what the motive was for the gruesome murders that are forms the foundation of the story. By the end of the book I didn't care enough to go back and try to find out what I'd missed. Way too much work for way too little reward in the end.
on May 6, 2008
This is a beautifully-written work, poignant and evocative, about a deeply rural community in North Dakota. In ways it's almost like a Greek tragedy, with the weaving, measuring, and cutting of the threads by Clotho, Lachesis, and Atropos. Many books try to introduce a lot of characters and tie their fates together--as in a plane crash (rarely effective) or in, say, Wilder's The Bridge of San Luis Rey (done effectively). Plague of Doves is more like Wilder's novel: the threads are woven together with a masterful skill--everything fits and makes perfect sense. You get about 10 different narrators, although some appear only briefly.
The story spans over a hundred years, and involves the murder of a family, a retaliatory lynching, and how those stories interact with the current-day narrators. Much of the book is about the interrelationships of the whites, the Indians, and the Metis (mixed-breed Indian/white): there are stories about the 1885 Northwest Rebellion and Louis Riel. One of the main characters is supposedly named after Riel's girlfriend. This happened long ago--but it isn't remote. Some of the narration is by old Indians, and their parents or grandparents were deeply involved in the events of 1885 and the murders and lynching in 1911. The title of the book also comes from such a narration--it refers to a time where passenger pigeons were like a plague of giant locusts: it adds an almost surreal element to the story.
You'll find yourself swept along, both forwards and backwards in time, from the late 1800s to the present, and everything intertwines and interlocks in a truly lyrical manner. This is storytelling at its best!
I am a huge Erdrich fan, but this is not my favorite. I have enjoyed her plot-driven novels such as "The Last Report . . .", "The Painted Drum" and "The Master Butcher's Singing Club" very much. I also enjoyed "Love Medicine," which is a set of stories, like "A Plague of Doves," that work as a novel. I had a hard time getting involved in this book. I found it a bit slow. I had to push myself through it. Reading the other reviews had me wondering if I had read the same book. I kept reading because I do love her writing.
on June 2, 2016
Just try to imagine a novel that encompasses all these elements: a lynching on an Indian reservation, a young woman’s lesbian awakening, a man’s kidnapping of his wife, a multiple murder, a collection of rare postage stamps, a dim-witted Catholic priest, a rape, a twisted messianic preacher, a valuable violin, a woman’s murder of her husband, a tragic automobile crash, and an extended stay in a mental hospital. If a novel is a work of fiction in which “something happens,” as Joseph Heller once suggested, Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Plague of Doves, has the makings of at least a dozen books. Yet somehow it all works, through the magic of Erdrich’s surpassing genius.
Multiple narrators, on and off the reservation
The Plague of Doves is set in North Dakota, in the small town of Pluto and the nearby Chippewa reservation. Erdrich tells her story through the perspective of four narrators, with additional stories nested into their tales as elders recount the tragic history of the region. The story overflows with characters, and it takes awhile to understand how closely they’re all connected. The suspense builds, the pieces fall into place, and the the full picture eventually emerges in startling clarity. The Plague of Doves is a brilliant example of a story in the hands of a writer at the peak of her art. It’s at once a snapshot of Native American history, a coming-of-age story, and a novel of suspense.
As the title suggests, a time when passenger pigeons darkened the skies of the American West figures in this tale. Their “numbers were such that nobody thought they could possibly ever be wiped from the earth.” But they were, just as surely as the herds of thundering buffalo were reduced to a handful of survivors — and the Native American population itself was nearly exterminated.
No stereotypes on this reservation
A young woman named Evelina Harp, one-quarter Chippewa like the author, is the first of the book’s four narrators. Here’s how she thinks of herself: “I didn’t really fit in with anybody. We were middle-class BIA Indians, and I wanted to go to Paris.” And here’s how she describes her family: “We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers, and bureaucrats. The wildest of us . . . is a short-order cook, and the most heroic of us (my father) teaches.” In other words, you won’t find any stereotypes on this Indian reservation. Yes, alcohol has taken its toll on some of the characters, and others have acted out their response to the genocide in their heritage, but every one of their stories is unique. In the words of one tribal elder when speaking about a young man who had turned to drugs and crime, “He was a bad thing waiting for a worse thing to happen. A mistake, but one that we kept trying to salvage because he was so young.” Erdrich’s characters are as real as they can be.
About the author
Louise Erdrich is a National Book Award-winning novelist of mixed Native American, German, and French heritage. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, which her maternal grandfather served as tribal chairman. Both her parents were schoolteachers. LaRose is her fifteenth adult novel.