Just try to imagine a novel that encompasses all these elements: a lynching on an Indian reservation, a young woman’s lesbian awakening, a man’s kidnapping of his wife, a multiple murder, a collection of rare postage stamps, a dim-witted Catholic priest, a rape, a twisted messianic preacher, a valuable violin, a woman’s murder of her husband, a tragic automobile crash, and an extended stay in a mental hospital. If a novel is a work of fiction in which “something happens,” as Joseph Heller once suggested, Louise Erdrich’s novel, The Plague of Doves, has the makings of at least a dozen books. Yet somehow it all works, through the magic of Erdrich’s surpassing genius.
The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich @@@@@ (5 out of 5)
Multiple narrators, on and off the reservation
The Plague of Doves is set in North Dakota, in the small town of Pluto and the nearby Chippewa reservation. Erdrich tells her story through the perspective of four narrators, with additional stories nested into their tales as elders recount the tragic history of the region. The story overflows with characters, and it takes awhile to understand how closely they’re all connected. The suspense builds, the pieces fall into place, and the the full picture eventually emerges in startling clarity. The Plague of Doves is a brilliant example of a story in the hands of a writer at the peak of her art. It’s at once a snapshot of Native American history, a coming-of-age story, and a novel of suspense.
As the title suggests, a time when passenger pigeons darkened the skies of the American West figures in this tale. Their “numbers were such that nobody thought they could possibly ever be wiped from the earth.” But they were, just as surely as the herds of thundering buffalo were reduced to a handful of survivors — and the Native American population itself was nearly exterminated.
No stereotypes on this reservation
A young woman named Evelina Harp, one-quarter Chippewa like the author, is the first of the book’s four narrators. Here’s how she thinks of herself: “I didn’t really fit in with anybody. We were middle-class BIA Indians, and I wanted to go to Paris.” And here’s how she describes her family: “We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers, and bureaucrats. The wildest of us . . . is a short-order cook, and the most heroic of us (my father) teaches.” In other words, you won’t find any stereotypes on this Indian reservation. Yes, alcohol has taken its toll on some of the characters, and others have acted out their response to the genocide in their heritage, but every one of their stories is unique. In the words of one tribal elder when speaking about a young man who had turned to drugs and crime, “He was a bad thing waiting for a worse thing to happen. A mistake, but one that we kept trying to salvage because he was so young.” Erdrich’s characters are as real as they can be.
About the author
Louise Erdrich is a National Book Award-winning novelist of mixed Native American, German, and French heritage. She is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, which her maternal grandfather served as tribal chairman. Both her parents were schoolteachers. LaRose is her fifteenth adult novel.
For further reading
I’ve also reviewed two other outstanding novels by Louise Erdrich:
- The Night Watchman by Louise Erdrich (Louise Erdrich on Indian cultural genocide)
- The Round House (Louise Erdrich’s haunting new novel of a brutal crime on the reservation)
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