The Plague of Doves Summary
The Plague of Doves is a 2008 novel in which different narrators describe the present and past of an Ojibwe reservation and the neighboring town of Pluto.
- In 1911, four Indigenous men discover a Pluto farm family’s murder. A mob lynches all the men except one, Mooshum.
- Mooshum meets his wife, Junesse, amid the 1896 plague of doves. His granddaughter, Evelina, works at a diner with Marn Wolde, who has murdered her husband, Billy, a religious leader.
- Judge Coutts marries Mooshum’s daughter Geraldine after an affair with Dr. Cordelia Lochren, Pluto’s historian, who solves the farm family’s murder.
Last Updated on February 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1638
Louise Erdrich's The Plague of Doves is set in North Dakota in the Ojibwe reservation and its border town, Pluto. The novel spans nearly a century and begins with the gruesome murder of a farm family in Pluto in 1911. The initial chapter, voiced by an omniscient narrator, describes the murder scene: only the baby is left crying while the murderer plays music on the record player. The sound of the violin soothes the baby, and the murderer looks around at all the blood he has spilled.
The narrative then moves into Erdrich’s style of multiple first-person narrators and grand shifts in time. As the story weaves together, Pluto’s troubled past mingles with that of the Ojibwe reservation, and everyone in the community is somehow connected.
Just after the farm family is murdered, Mooshum (as a teenager) is traveling with his friend, Cuthbert Peace, and Asignak and Holy Track, basket weavers in the community. The four come to the home of the murdered family and are spooked by the bellowing of the unmilked cows on the farm. Asignak senses danger, but Cuthbert insists on going to help the cows. He then hears the baby crying from the house; upon approaching the door, they see blood smeared all around. Cuthbert wants to rescue the baby, but Asignak reminds him that they will likely be blamed for the murder and hanged if they report the crime. Asignak sends an anonymous letter to the authorities. Later, it is revealed that Mooshum, while drunk, mentions their finding the baby to a white man named Eugene Wildstrand, and a mob gathers to go after the four men. The mob catches and hangs the Indians, yet they spare Mooshum. This unjust hanging haunts the town and its descendants for decades—and so begins the unraveling of the town’s history that weaves together the lives of its inhabitants.
At the beginning of the novel, Mooshum relays the story of 1896, when a plague of doves descended upon the area. The birds were everywhere and caused ladies walking down the street to clutch their skirts for fear that the birds would fly into the folds. Among this madness, Mooshum sets eyes on his beloved, a young girl named Junesse, with whom he runs away from home. One day in the woods they meet “Mustache” Maude Black, a wrangler woman who takes a liking to the pair and offers them a place to sleep in her home. Mooshum and Junesse stay on with Maude until they become the victims of discrimination—another woman is murdered nearby, and a mob comes to Maude’s house and demands that she turn over the Indians. Maude shoots and kills the man point blank and gives her best horses to Mooshum and Junesse so they can flee to safety. They go back to the reservation and set up a small farm, raising their children in peace.
Many years later, Mooshum’s daughter, Clemence, lives with her family on the reservation while looking after Mooshum and trying to manage his intake of alcohol. He broods over Clemence’s sister-in-law, Neve Harp, even though she is much younger than he is. When he is not trying to win Neve’s affection, Mooshum sits in the house with his brother Shamengwa and entertains the local priest, Father Cassidy. The priest wants to know why Mooshum has given up his faith but becomes distracted when his shot glass is empty and Clemence is stingy with the bottle. Mooshum exclaims that the Eucharist is really a cannibalistic meal, and Father Cassidy is outraged. He storms out of the house only to pass out in the front yard in a drunken stupor.
Neve Harp wants nothing to do with Mooshum; she has had troubles with men. Neve was once married to John Wildstrand, whose heart could not be contained by the confines of his marriage. He began an affair with an Indian woman, Maggie Peace, yet he would not leave his wife for fear of his own guilt. Maggie becomes pregnant, and her little brother Billy believes John should treat her justly. Billy goes to John’s home and threatens him and his wife, but John convinces Billy to play along in a scheme to cover up the affair. The two contrive to have Billy kidnap Neve, and John later pays a ransom to the Peace family for Neve’s return. When Maggie learns of the plan, she refuses to allow John to see the baby, whom she has named Corwin, and she pushes John out of her life. Neve is eventually able to identify the voice of her kidnapper; Billy, to avoid being sent to prison, joins the armed forces.
While in the army, Billy retreats into his religion, and his letters home to Maggie become increasingly disturbing. When Billy returns home, he begins a church and garners a close following of people. He marries Marn Wolde, who ran away from her family in hopes of finding a better life. But her life with Billy is far from good—Billy insists on maintaining absolute control over Marn and everyone in his congregation. When he and his church are ousted for Billy’s ways, he convinces Marn to ask her family to let Billy and the congregation members camp in trailers on their farm. Back in Pluto, Billy becomes more abusive; when he subjects his own children to severe physical punishment, Marn decides she has had enough. She murders Billy in bed and runs away with the children. She takes a job at a local diner, the 4-B’s.
Mooshum’s granddaughter, Evelina Harp, works at the diner. When Marn arrives, Evelina and the other workers feel sorry for her children, who look famished. But Evelina also has other things on her mind, like her undying love for Marn’s nephew, Corwin Peace, the son of Maggie Peace and John Wildstrand. Corwin has always been a rogue child, and Evelina can never manage to get close to him. When the two were in grade school together, Corwin did not cease taunting their teacher, Sister Mary Anita Buckendorf, whose severe overbite led the children to call her Godzilla. Evelina liked her teacher and felt that they could share a special bond, but even she did not stand up for Sister Mary Anita when Corwin unleashed a wind-up Godzilla toy on the classroom floor. Corwin’s problems continue, and as a teenager he is arrested and charged with the theft of Shamengwa’s violin. Others around him fight for his rehabilitation, and Corwin is ironically put under the tutelage of Shamengwa, who teaches him how to play the violin.
Evelina tells Mooshum about her teacher, and he is disturbed by the fact that she is one of the descendants of the Buckendorf family. Evelina does not understand the reason for her grandfather’s fears until she one day confronts Sister Mary Anita. The nun tells her that her ancestor, one of the Buckendorfs, was present when the group of four Indians was accused of murdering the farm family. But Sister Mary also tells Evelina that her grandfather Mooshum knows much more than he wants to admit, and Evelina then learns that Mooshum was spared from being hanged because he gave up the names of the other Indians. Evelina feels her life beginning to unravel and spends some time in a mental health facility. While at the hospital, Evelina meets the patients and is confused by the behavior of one in particular, Uncle Warren Wolde. He always folds up dollar bills and screams, “I’ll slaughter them all!” while he totters around the hallways. Evelina never understands his meaning.
The town’s tribal judge, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, knows all this. Like his father before him, he practices law and keeps a running chronicle of the relationships between the white people in Pluto and the Ojibwe Indians on the reservation. Even Antone has a relationship with the Indians: before his father, Joseph, became a lawyer, he spent time with well-known trackers, the Peace brothers Henri and Lafayette. The two ventured west with a group of men including Joseph Coutts to attempt to settle a plot of wild land. After life-threatening trials, the men finally got to the land and realized that it was uninhabitable. Joseph returned to Pluto and decided to take up law instead. In addition to this connection, Antone becomes engaged to and marries Geraldine, Mooshum’s other daughter. But the marriage comes only after Antone’s long-standing affair with Dr. Cordelia Lochren, the historian and doctor in town who refuses to treat Indians. Cordelia is the surviving child of the murdered farm family, and many assume that she harbors a grudge against all Indian people for the crime done to her family. But Cordelia is secretly afflicted by the forbidden love between her and Antone.
Cordelia is haunted by other ghosts as well, namely a strange patient she had some years ago. After a call from a troubled farm family, Cordelia visits their home and finds a man who has lost his wits. She visits him twice a day until he eventually is committed to the state hospital. The man, Warren Wolde, sends her a package upon his death. When Cordelia inquires about Warren’s death, she is told that he dropped dead upon hearing violin music played by a boy named Corwin Peace. Cordelia then puts together all the clues of the past and realizes that Warren was in fact the man who killed her family. Cordelia wishes to celebrate this irony by declaring as a town holiday the day when she inadvertently saved the life of the man who murdered her family. At the end of the novel, Cordelia and her best friend, Neve Harp, roam the streets of Pluto thinking of times past.