Wednesday, June 25, 2008

On Loiuse Erdrich's The Plague of Doves

There’s a scene about ninety odd pages into Louise Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves that is illustrative, in a tangential way, of what her book is about. Two of the novel’s single and middle-aged characters, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts and Geraldine, and are just beginning to know each other. They are out a boat, fishing, when something heavy tugs Geraldine’s line. They find it is a large turtle and lug it up. For some strange reason that is puzzling to Coutts, Geraldine becomes glum. Why? Because engraved on the shell of the turtle are the letters “G and R”. They stand for Geraldine and her former boyfriend Roman. Roman had caught the same turtle when he and Geraldine had been fishing a long time ago. The turtle was small then. Roman had etched the letters and set it free. He is no longer alive, but his memory has unexpectedly cropped up in the form of these engraved letters now, at beginning of a different romance in Geraldine’s life.

The theme of Erdrich’s novel is how the past perpetually influences the present in subtle and unexpected ways. Except that the past isn’t restricted the painful memory of one’s first love. In The Plague of Doves it spans three generations, and straddles the histories of two communities in North Dakota: the community of American Indians, who steadily lost their lands in the late nineteenth century and were shepherded into reservations, and the community of white immigrants who went through their own travails as they expanded westward. But the story isn’t the conflict between the two. Rather it is how their shared history – of suspicion and mistrust but also of help and interaction – has evolved and intertwined in complex ways and influenced the succeeding two generations. As Evelina Harp, who is part Ojibwe and part white and the youngest of the first person narrators in the novel, says:
“Now that some of us have mixed in the spring of our existence both guilt and victim, there is no unraveling the rope.”

The Plague of Doves
centers on the brutal killing in 1911 of a white farm family in Pluto, North Dakota. Only a seventeen-month-old baby survives. Evidence is unclear as to who is responsible, but in the rage that grips the town, three Indians are lynched by a vigilante mob. The murders and the lynching hover like a dark shadow in the decades after. The people involved in the lynching, the Indians who are lynched, the baby that is left to survive: everyone becomes part of a complex puzzle that Erdrich slowly unveils in her jagged narrative which jumps in time and perspective. Judge Coutts, whose tone is the most direct and calming of all – reflective of his character and his vocation – makes this pithy remark:
“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.”
Consider this: Evelina Harp is the granddaughter of Mooshum, a full-blood Ojibwe, one of the four Indians who discovered the murdered farm family. Evelina has a crush on Corwin Peace whose great-grandfather, Cuthbert Peace, was one of the Indians lynched. Cuthbert’s brothers Henri and Lafayette Peace, both excellent fiddle players, helped guide Judge Coutts’s grandfather in the nineteenth century while he was prospecting on the frontier (the theme of music and how it is passed on is one of the beautiful parts of the novel). Judge Coutts, a mixed-blood himself, is interested, as I have already pointed out, in Evelina’s aunt, Geraldine. And so it goes on and on – I have revealed only the basic details. In fact, these links are so complicated and wondrous, that I often stopped to write them out and draw the genealogy myself. That is what Evelina does too in the novel:
“I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw our elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles. I drew in pencil. There were a few people, one of them being Corwin Peace, whose chart was so complicated that I erased parts of it until I wore right through the paper. Still I could not erase the questions underneath…”
While Erdrich’s many narrators meander abstractly – sometimes too abstractly for my liking – this vast all-encompassing web of connections and the unsolved case of the farm murders sustain and are the heart of the narrative. In fact, Erdrich’s plotting is so intricate that the full details become known only in the last few pages. There is no gimmickry here; everything is revealed in a matter of fact way.

Certain characterizations and moments in the novel stand out: Mooshum, the shriveled old Indian, who brings much needed humor by way of his discursions with the Catholic priest; Shamengwa, Mooshum’s brother, and a passionate fiddle player, whose story about how he began playing and found his fiddle is the most poignant in the book; and Billy Peace, whose unsettling transformation from a shy, frail young man to a monstrous, insatiable leader of a religious sect, is depicted brilliantly through the perspective of his wife, Marn Wolde.

By peopling her novel with such diverse voices and by setting it across three generations, Erdrich has written a compelling, imaginative history. It is not the sort of dreary history one finds in books by overly serious historians. Erdrich's is a beautiful, melancholy history, held together by subtle familial interconnections that lend an uncanny symmetry to it.


Other notes:

1. If you are curious about the title of the novel, read the first chapter in The New Yorker.

2. Erdrich runs the independent bookstore Birchbark Books in Minneapolis.


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Destroying Angel said...

Great review; loved the book; just finished it moments ago and found myself immediately looking online for the genealogy which you wisely made while reading it. Awesome. Wow.