The Plague of Doves

by Louise Erdrich

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Shamengwa Summary

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Last Updated on February 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 815

This section is narrated by Judge Antone Bazil Coutts.

Shamengwa, though an old man, dresses himself well and plays the violin, despite having a twisted arm. His music is like feeling itself. One day, his niece Geraldine comes to see him and finds him tied to his bed and the violin stolen.

It is muttered that Corwin Peace is the culprit. When questioned, Corwin says he wouldn't stoop so low as to steal the violin, but of course he has stolen it. The police have to wait, however, for him to try to sell it, as there is no proof. Antone tells Shamengwa that he feels he knows who took the violin and is watching him.

Antone asks if Shamengwa would like a new violin in the meantime. There is only silence in response; Geraldine tells her uncle to explain.

Shamengwa says that his father played the fiddle until they lost a baby to diphtheria and Shamengwa’s mother made him take Holy Communion, becoming rigid until their oldest brother left to be a priest. The house became very quiet, the character of the mother much changed. 

Shortly after the plague of doves, Seraph Milk ran away, and Shamengwa wanted to run away too. He was home from church sick, tending the stove, aged five or six. He found his father’s fiddle and began to try to play it.

After that day, he often took out the fiddle when nobody was home and learned to play it. But one day his mother heard him playing and became agitated when Shamengwa lied and said he had heard nothing. Shamengwa’s father began to worry that his wife was hearing things, but still Shamengwa played, unable to stand the silence. He was lonely. One night, one of the family cows kicked him and shattered the bone in his arm. Shamengwa began tying up his arm so he could play the fiddle, and it healed like that, deformed.

One day his parents came home early from church and found him playing. Shamengwa’s father told him to keep playing. The next morning he left the family, taking the violin with him.

After this, Shamengwa had a dream: a voice told him to go and wait by the lake. So, Shamengwa did, and waited for several days. After three nights, he saw a canoe drifting. In the canoe was a new violin in its case. This, Shamengwa says, is why he will now play no other violin.

Corwin has been keeping the violin, meanwhile, in his mother’s loft. Now he takes it down and considers where he can sell it. He tries several music stores, who turn him down. He takes out the violin, which he cannot play, and begins pretending to play it for a growing audience. This is where he is picked up and brought in to Antone.

Antone sentences Corwin to apprentice himself to Shamengwa, to learn the violin. Shamengwa declares that Corwin has “the fire,” and Corwin improves all summer, fall, spring, and the next summer, until Shamengwa dies.

At the funeral, however, Father Cassidy begins a blessing over the soul of Seraph Milk, Mushoom—the wrong brother. This perks up Mushoom, who begins to smile as he hears the priest declare him a sinner addicted to drink. Eventually Clemence gets up, goes to the coffin, opens it, and takes out the violin.

Clemence gives the violin to Geraldine, who says that Shamengwa had wanted Corwin to have it. Corwin begins to play in response to Geraldine’s request. When he has played his piece, however, he looks down into the coffin and then smashes the violin against the communion rail. He then lays the violin back in the coffin. Sticking out of it is a roll of paper, which Antone takes. 

It contains a letter from Henri Peace, a message to his brother Lafayette. He is sending out the violin on the waters to find him. He writes that Father Jasprine learned a musical instrument before he ventured out on mission but died young and left this violin to his altar boy, Henri’s father. When the father died, he left the fiddle to both his sons, declaring that they should race each other for it in their canoes.

Henri’s canoe began to leak during the race, and he realized Lafayette had pierced it. The canoe took on water but actually fared better like this. Lafayette, however, overturned. Every night, Henri played the violin for his brother, but now he can play no more and is lashing his fiddle into the canoe, sending it out to find his brother.

Antone is fascinated to learn what happened to the Peace brothers and to note that the violin eventually found a Peace, Corwin, via Shamengwa.

Antone eventually marries Geraldine, and they take in Corwin, who plays now for money in a traveling band.

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