The Plague of Doves

by Louise Erdrich

Start Free Trial

The Plague of Doves

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on February 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1603

In The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich returns to the familiar plains of North Dakota, but with a completely new cast of characters who offer, as usual, a continual surprise. This time her setting is the small town of Pluto (named for the former planet, not for the god of the underworld), where the sparse population consists of Germans, Norwegians, and Metis, the descendants of French-Canadian settlers who intermarried with Ojibwa (also called Chippewa) from the neighboring reservation.

This is a story of connections, mixing regional and human history with fiction and elements of the supernatural. Typically for Erdrich, time is fluid; the present is filled with dizzying relationships, interspersed with tales from the past that reveal the origin and history of the community. The novel begins with a horrific glimpse of a 1911 bloodbath that only an infant survives, then immediately shifts back fifteen years to the time when a sudden plague occurs: brown doves blacken the skies like locusts and settle over the land, devouring everything. Ironically, these frequent emblems of peace are viewed as invaders, and desperate people attempt to drive them away. As the local Catholic priest organizes a procession of the mixed-blood population to pray for deliverance, his young half-brother, Seraph Milk, then an altar boy, seizes the resulting confusion to run off with his future wife and become the progenitor of the Milk-Harp family.

Erdrich employs three main story lines as well as several minor ones. The first belongs to Evelina (Evey) Harp, granddaughter of Seraph Milk, who is now known as Mooshum (Grandfather). Evelina, who comes of age in the novel, is one of several narrators, revealing her childhood crushes on a mischievous classmate, Corwin Peace, and on her sixth-grade teacher, Sister Mary Anita Buckendorf, whom the children call Sister Godzilla. Both will figure in her later life. Evelina, who reads Albert Camus’s La Chute (1956; The Fall, 1957) and adores all things French, will attend college, become a psychiatric aide in the state mental hospital, have a brief relationship with one of the patients, and eventually sign herself in as a patient after a bad experience with the LSD that Corwin gives her. (In an Erdrich novel, someone is always slightly mad.)

Mooshum is another of Erdrich’s delightful and rascally old men, as is his brother Shamengwa, an untutored artist who plays a magical violin in spite of his “folded-up” arm, damaged by the kick of a cow. (As it was foretold in a dream, Shamengwa received that ancient instrument when it floated directly to him in an otherwise empty canoe, and when his cherished violin is finally stolen, Shamengwa suspects the culprit is Corwin, by then grown, good-looking, and reckless.) The two elders delight in teasing Mooshum’s strict daughter by sneaking forbidden whiskey past her, which they can manage whenever the unpopular white priest Father Cassidy comes calling in an attempt to save their souls. Shamengwa’s conversion is hopeless, since he long ago left the church to return to traditional beliefs, but Mooshum enjoys sparring with the priest and watching his frustration. Later, Father Cassidy eulogizes the wrong brother at a funeral and earns the enmity of the whole family.

One of the tales that Mooshum relates to Evelina is a shameful secret widely known in the community yet seldom spoken of: the story of a thirteen-year-old boy who was a distant relative of her grandmother. The youth’s pious mother, who was dying of tuberculosis, nailed wooden crosses to her son’s boot soles to protect him from the disease so that his footprints revealed a cross, a holy track, which then became his nickname. Holy Track, whom Erdrich has modeled on a historical figure of the same name, was one of four innocent Ojibwa captured and lynched by an angry mob of Pluto’s white citizens, who believed them to be responsible for the brutal murders of the baby’s family. Descendants of the mob, as well as of their victims, still live side by side in the area; one of them is Sister Mary Anita. The unspoken bitterness between whites and Indians still remains in Pluto, but silence helps to preserve the amenities of everyday living.

A parallel story line, that of the family of Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, mirrors the history of this region in another way. He explains, “Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.” In the past the judge’s grandfather, Joseph Coutts, a classics teacher, joined a surveying party on a whim to explore town sites in Dakota for the projected railroad. (Elsewhere, Erdrich indicates that this doomed expedition actually took place in 1857.) This group was guided by two Ojibwa brothers, ancestors of Corwin. Unfortunately, both the real and the fictional expeditions chose to leave Minnesota in January to get a head start on other parties. Challenged by bone-chilling temperatures and insufficient provisions, most of which were lost in prairie blizzards, members of the surveying party barely survived. The two Peace guides saved the life of Joseph Coutts near the site that would become Pluto; he then turned to the practice of law, as did his son and grandson after him.

At present, Antone maintains tribal law on the tribal land, observing that “the entire reservation is rife with conflicting passions. We can’t seem to keep our hands off one another.” Neither can the judge, usually a deliberate man, keep his hands off Evelina’s unmarried aunt, Geraldine Milk, eagerly courting the tribal enrollment specialist in spite of his ongoing relationship with a married woman.

Still a third story line is narrated by Marn Wolde, the farmer’s daughter who marries Corwin’s uncle. Marn is only sixteen when she encounters the charismatic Billy Peace, who has already served in the Korean War and is now a minor traveling evangelist. He invites her to a camp meeting where he and others preach and where he prays in tongues over the main speaker’s dying mother. Smitten, Marn admits she is “too young to stand against it” and soon marries Billy; they have two children. Eventually they and Billy’s followers move back to her family farm, which abuts the reservation and where her parents live with her elderly great-uncle. Billy cajoles Marn’s father into signing over his power of attorney to her and thereby to him.

After Billy is suddenly struck by lightning, he seems transformed into a kind of monster, physically expanding as his fame and appetites increase (he can eat a whole cake a day). He grows more inflexible as a healer and a prophet, while his burgeoning organization, known as the kindred, becomes a full-blown cult whose members live in a compound on the farm. He controls their behavior through his rigid Manual of Discipline, ultimately taking away even their names.

Marn herself has a bent toward the supernatural with what she calls her “pictures,” or visions. As a form of solace, she has taken up beautiful but poisonous serpents, handling them as a test of faith. The snakes make her feel powerful for the first time, perhaps because Billy is afraid of them. After the copperhead bites her, thus warning her to leave her fanatical husband, Marn recognizes that her life has become a trap, and she plans an escape for herself and for her children. Her final retribution against her husband is melodramatic but nevertheless satisfying.

In terms of style, Erdrich exhibits effortless skill with language. For example, with the arrival of the doves, “the people woke . . . to the scraping and beating of wings, the murmurous susurration, the awful cooing babble, and the sight . . . of the curious and gentle faces of those creatures.” In another section, Marn introduces her narrative with a lyrical paragraph as she awaits a storm: “The wind came off the dense-grassed slough, smelling like wet hair, and the hot ditch grass reached for it, butter yellow . . . each stalk so dry it gave off a puff of smoke when snapped.” The involvement of the reader’s physical senses renders these images vividly and perfectly.

Having a faultless memory would be helpful in order to follow the frequent time shifts and muddled relationships of these various characters. There are so many diverse threads to the story that it is easy to get lost or confused, and the plot is so densely woven that at first a reader may have difficulty making connections. However, by the end of the book, Erdrich skillfully pulls these threads together. The novel follows Evey’s observation: “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.”

In the end, everything seems to come back to the tree that stands on the farm owned by Marn’s parents and that also graces the dust jacket. This is the same tree that was filled with doves during the plague of 1896 and where birds continue to roost in the present: a Tree of Life. After a lengthy search in 1911, this tree was finally selected by the town vigilantes (even though the vote was never unanimous) as sturdy enough for the lynching of Holy Track and his three companions; thus, it is a hanging tree. It is also a funeral tree, for in its branches the cross-soled boots of Holy Track still dangle as a kind of memorial. While it symbolizes the interrelationships of the extended family tree that so many of these characters share, it remains a tree of bitter, even biblical, knowledge, an emblem of a great wrong and of a reconciliation.


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on February 4, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 58

Booklist 104, nos. 9/10 (January 1, 2008): 21.


Elle 23, no. 9 (May, 2008): 174.


Kirkus Reviews 76, no. 3 (February 1, 2008): 106.


Library Journal 133, no. 3 (February 15, 2008): 90.


Ms. 18, no. 2 (Spring, 2008): 71.


The New York Review of Books 55, no. 12 (July 17, 2008): 37-38.


The New York Times, April 29, 2008, p. E1.


The New York Times Book Review, May 11, 2008, p. 9.


People 69, no. 17 (May 5, 2008): 53.


Publishers Weekly 255, no. 2 (January 14, 2008): 36.


The Women’s Review of Books 25, no. 5 (September/October, 2008): 12-13.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access



Critical Essays