The Plague of Doves
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 occursbrown 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). Evey, 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. Evey, 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 crippled 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 Evey is a shameful secret widely known in the community yet seldom spoken ofthe 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...
(The entire section is 1603 words.)