The Plague of Doves

by Louise Erdrich

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A Little Nip Summary

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Last Updated on February 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 521

Three pictures hang on the kitchen wall: John F. Kennedy, Pope John XXIII, and Louis Riel, the visionary hero of the Michif people, once venerated by Mooshum and Clemence. Riel was routed and the Milk family fled; Riel was tried and hanged for betraying the faith of the Catholic priests with his own heresies.

Mooshum has a younger brother, Shamengwa, who plays the violin; when the old Franciscan priest, Father Cassidy, visits them as old men, they deliberately remind him of Riel and his beliefs. The summer after Evelina’s first kiss, Cassidy visits and drinks whiskey with the old men. He complains that they, unlike Clemence and her family, rarely come to church; the brothers tease that they have been completely pure. Later, Cassidy moves to pet one of the ponies, and it bites him. Clemence apologizes for the “little nip,” but Cassidy, aggrieved, leaves the old men to be berated by Clemence. The brothers subsequently attend church and then deliberately lapse in their visits to provoke a visit from Cassidy. The next time he comes to the house, Mooshum promises to sin this time so he will have something to confess.

Evelina's brother, Joseph, struggles at school, as the son of a science teacher; to avoid being seen as uninteresting, he drinks wine with the other boys. He is very interested in black beetles, and the siblings collect these. Joseph is also interested in salamanders from the backyard pond; one night, Joseph catches and cuts open a salamander to look at its insides. 

Mooshum and Shamengwa believe that if Riel had listened to his war chief, Gabriel Dumont, he would have won a better place in the world for mixed-bloods and Indian Catholics. They believe Riel’s revelation that hell does not last forever. Meanwhile, Evelina’s father goes to Mass for Clemence but has no real conviction. Clemence is a true Catholic but thinks little of Cassidy, who drinks too much and talks about birth control. Cassidy also argues with Mooshum on the question of Riel and Indian rights. Mooshum is keen to point out, too, that if God made male bodies, insisting on chastity is against God’s wishes.

Mooshum is in love with Mrs. Neve Harp, the town historian, who often comes to visit and to whom Mooshum writes letters. 

The family live in Bureau of Indian Affairs housing and have electricity and plumbing; their aunt Geraldine, however, still lives out on the land and hauls her own water. Cassidy visits often and expresses his distaste for salamanders, which he says are hellish creatures. Mooshum manipulates this distaste when telling tall tales about what happened to his ear. He also claims that he kept the lost piece and compares it sacrilegiously to the relics of saints kept in the church and the body of Christ eaten at Mass. Eventually, Cassidy is so furious at this talk that he calls Mooshum a pagan condemned to hell and drunkenly leaves but passes out on the grass, having slipped on a salamander. This story soon spreads: the priest drunk, tripped by a devilish salamander, having cursed Mooshum to hell.

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