The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich

2227528The Plague of Doves, by Louise Erdrich, didn’t quite make sense to me until I read the brief note at the end. This note pointed out that several of the “sections” of The Plague of Doves had been previously published as short stories. When I looked back on what I read as a series of linked stories, I had to marvel at the way a story and a theme of disillusionment coalesced out of the various characters’ narratives. Motifs suddenly became clues about the central mysteries of the collection. The achronological organization began to feel like I was interviewing potential witnesses and suspects of the crimes committed on a North Dakotan Ojibwa-Metis-Michif reservation over generations. By the end, I felt that I knew more about these characters than, perhaps, they meant to reveal, as though I really was an investigator or oral historian.

The Plague of Doves covers more than 100 years of history, but it opens near the end of that span. Evelina shares her grandfathers retelling of the day he was almost hanged by a posse of white men. The posse suspected Mooshum and three other Native Americans he was with of killing a white family (excluding one infant survivor). Despite token resistance by white law enforcement, Mooshum’s friends are lynched. The lynching and the murders that precipitated it form a core for several of the narrators to hang their own stories on. With each new narrator, whether directly connected to those killings or not, we learn more about the lynching, the murders, and a lot of things that happened since.

Because some of the sections are only tangentially related to the killings, I looked for something to connect all the sections. Partway through The Plague of Doves, I think I spotted it: disillusionment. Over and over in this novel, I watched characters (who are on the pragmatic side, for the most part) realize that love, law, faith, and other abstract concepts might let them down. That said, this is not a hopeless book. Rather, I read this book as a series of awakenings as characters realized that what they thought was important was either more complicated or just figments of their imaginations. The characters sometimes break, but I sense that they become stronger for their mental ordeals.

The Plague of Doves is a complex piece of fiction that offers several meals’ worth food for through. Now that I’ve finished it, I feel like my brain has been performing marathons as I’ve tried to work out what this book is all about. This brief review doesn’t even come close to covering it all.

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