Louise Erdrich’s gorgeous prose and fascination with storytelling achieve a spellbinding hold on the reader from the very first sentence of The Plague of Doves: “The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib, eyes wide, bawling.”
In this masterful novel, alternating narrators reveal the family histories and contemporary events of characters whose lives intertwine after a horrible crime takes place on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation. The irresistibly absorbing plot examines the fallout from multiple facets over generations and culminates in a thrilling conclusion. The novel’s inciting crime is based on the historical incident of an 1897 mob in North Dakota who lynched three Native Americans, two of them boys, accused of murdering a white family.
Erdrich explores heredity, memory and guilt, and touches on the displacement of Native Americans from their land. If this sounds too heavy, don’t be dissuaded. The novel’s power affects the reader, as characters cope with the weight these events exert on their own personal histories. And the book includes a fair amount of comic relief, as in this description of grade school love:
Corwin tried everything to win me back. He almost spoiled his reputation by eating tree bark. Then he put two crayons up his nose, pretend tusks. The pink got stuck and Sister Mary Anita sent him to visit the Indian Health Service clinic. He only rescued his image by getting his stomach pumped in the emergency room. I now despised him, but that only seemed to fuel his adoration.
Some passages are so beautifully written, they’re transformative. Erdrich moves through the characters’ layered lives with suspenseful tension, pursuing me to the last page. For example, in this excerpt from the middle of the story, a character falls under the hold of her preacher husband’s revival cult:
Deep in the night, every night, through the space of the great open center of the house, I woke to the comfort of stuttering rings of telephones… Women called to say they’d seen a light in the east, heard a voice rise from the laundry chute, felt power boil up between their knuckles, understood another exquisite language that hovered in the air all around them… Men wrote and called telling [the preacher] their car radios exploded in the word, their power tools cried out, their names went dead, all of a sudden no one remembered who they were.
Each character is deeply human and sympathetic, from the teenaged granddaughter of one of the lynching’s witnesses, to the descendants of the murderous mob, to the town’s judge, whose story drives the novel briefly into the territory of adventure novel. During his harrowing attempt to settle along the Canadian border, he realizes:
It was true that his original purpose on this expedition had been to become a rich man, but now in the measureless night he understood it was more than that. He’d seen the blizzard sweep out of nothing and descend in fury upon them and then return to the nothingness it came from…
The Plague of Doves combines historical fiction with adventure novel, coming of age with mystery, romance with suspense. This is my new favorite novel, replacing another multiply-narrated masterpiece that explores family history, racism, religion and imperialism, Barbara Kingsolver‘s The Poisonwood Bible. But just in case my impeccable taste isn’t authoritative enough, the book was also a 2009 finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
Here’s an excerpt from an interview of Louise Erdrich reading advice to herself for writing: