Plague of Doves (Erdrich)

The Plague of Doves 
Louise Erdrich, 2008
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780060515133

Louise Erdrich's mesmerizing new novel, her first in almost three years, centers on a compelling mystery. The unsolved murder of a farm family haunts the small, white, off-reservation town of Pluto, North Dakota.

The vengeance exacted for this crime and the subsequent distortions of truth transform the lives of Ojibwe living on the nearby reservation and shape the passions of both communities for the next generation.

The descendants of Ojibwe and white intermarry, their lives intertwine; only the youngest generation, of mixed blood, remains unaware of the role the past continues to play in their lives.

Evelina Harp is a witty, ambitious young girl, part Ojibwe, part white, who is prone to falling hopelessly in love. Mooshum, Evelina's grandfather, is a seductive storyteller, a repository of family and tribal history with an all-too-intimate knowledge of the violent past.

Nobody understands the weight of historical injustice better than Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a thoughtful mixed blood who witnesses the lives of those who appear before him, and whose own love life reflects the entire history of the territory.

In distinct and winning voices, Erdrich's narrators unravel the stories of different generations and families in this corner of North Dakota. Bound by love, torn by history, the two communities' collective stories finally come together in a wrenching truth revealed in the novel's final pages.

The Plague of Doves is one of the major achievements of Louise Erdrich's considerable oeuvre, a quintessentially American story and the most complex and original of her books. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—June 7, 1954
Where—Little Falls, Minnesota, USA
Education—A.B., Dartmouth College; M.A., Johns Hopkins
Awards—National Book Award; National Book Critics Circle Award; Nelson Algren Prize
Currently—lives in Minnesota

Karen Louise Erdrich is an author of some 20 novels, as well as poetry, short stories, and children's books. She has some Native American ancestry and is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.

In 1984, Erdrich won the National Book Critics Circle Award for her debut novel, Love Medicine. In 2009, her novel The Plague of Doves was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction, and three years later, in 2012, she won the National Book Award for Round House.

Erdrich is the owner of Birchbark Books, a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The eldest of seven children, Erdrich was born to Ralph and Rita Erdrich in Little Falls, Minnesota. Her father was German-American while her mother was French and Anishinaabe (Ojibwa). Her grandfather Patrick Gourneau served as a tribal chairman for the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota where her parents taught at the Bureau of Indian Affairs school.

She attended Dartmouth College in 1972-1976, earning an AB degree and meeting her future husband, the Modoc anthropologist and writer Michael Dorris. He was then director of the college’s Native American Studies program. Subsequently, Erdrich worked in a wide variety of jobs, including as a lifeguard, waitress, poetry teacher at prisons, and construction flag signaler. She also became an editor for The Circle, a newspaper produced by and for the urban Native population in Boston. Erdrich graduated with a Master of Arts degree in creative writing from Johns Hopkins University in 1979.

In the period 1978-1982, Erdrich published many poems and short stories. It was also during this period that she began collaborating with Dorris, initially working through the mail while Dorris was working in New Zealand. The relationship progressed, and the two were married in 1981. During this time, Erdrich assembled the material that would eventually be published as the poetry collection Jacklight.

In 1982, Erdrich's story "The World’s Greatest Fisherman" was awarded the $5,000 Nelson Algren Prize for short fiction. This convinced Erdrich and Dorris, who continued to work collaboratively, that they should embark on writing a novel.

Early Novels
In 1984, Erdrich published the novel Love Medicine. Made up of a disjointed but interconnected series of short narratives, each told from the perspective of a different character, and moving backwards and forward in time through every decade between the 1930s and the present day, the book told the stories of several families living near each other on a North Dakota Ojibwe reservation.

The innovative techniques of the book, which owed a great deal to the works of William Faulkner but have little precedent in Native-authored fiction, allowed Erdrich to build up a picture of a community in a way entirely suited to the reservation setting. She received immediate praise from author/critics such as N. Scott Momaday and Gerald Vizenor, and the book was awarded the 1984 National Book Critics Circle Award. It has never subsequently been out of print.

Erdrich followed Love Medicine with The Beet Queen, which continued her technique of using multiple narrators, but surprised many critics by expanding the fictional reservation universe of Love Medicine to include the nearby town of Argus, North Dakota. Native characters are very much kept in the background in this novel, while Erdrich concentrates on the German-American community. The action of the novel takes place mostly before World War II.

The Beet Queen was subject to a bitter attack from Native novelist Leslie Marmon Silko, who accused Erdrich of being more concerned with postmodern technique than with the political struggles of Native peoples.

Erdrich and Dorris’ collaborations continued through the 1980s and into the 1990s, always occupying the same fictional universe.

Tracks goes back to the early 20th century at the formation of the reservation and introduces the trickster figure of Nanapush, who owes a clear debt to Nanabozho. Erdrich’s novel most rooted in Anishinaabe culture (at least until Four Souls), it shows early clashes between traditional ways and the Roman Catholic Church.

The Bingo Palace updates but does not resolve various conflicts from Love Medicine: set in the 1980s, it shows the effects both good and bad of a casino and a factory being set up among the reservation community. Finally, Tales of Burning Love finishes the story of Sister Leopolda, a recurring character from all the former books, and introduces a new set of white people to the reservation universe.

Erdrich and Dorris wrote The Crown of Columbus, the only novel to which both writers put their names, and A Yellow Raft in Blue Water, credited to Dorris. Both of these were set away from the Argus reservation.

Domestic Life
The couple had six children, three of them adopted. Dorris had adopted the children when he was single. After their marriage, Erdrich also adopted them, and the couple had three daughters together. Some of the children had difficulties.

In 1989 Dorris published The Broken Cord, a book about fetal alcohol syndrome, from which their adopted son Reynold Abel suffered. Dorris had found it was a widespread and until then relatively undiagnosed problem among Native American children because of mothers' alcohol issues. In 1991, Reynold Abel was hit by a car and killed at age 23.

In 1995 their son Jeffrey Sava accused them both of child abuse. Dorris and Erdrich unsuccessfully pursued an extortion case against him. Shortly afterward, Dorris and Erdrich separated and began divorce proceedings. Erdrich claimed that Dorris had been depressed since the second year of their marriage.

On April 11, 1997, Michael Dorris committed suicide in Concord, New Hampshire.

Later Writings
Erdrich’s first novel after divorce, The Antelope Wife, was the first to be set outside the continuity of the previous books. She has subsequently returned to the reservation and nearby towns, and has produced five novels since 1998 dealing with events in that fictional area. Among these are The Master Butchers Singing Club, a macabre mystery which again draws on Erdrich's Native American and German-American heritage, and The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. Both have geographic and character connections with The Beet Queen.

Together with several of her previous works, these have drawn comparisons with William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha novels. The successive novels have created multiple narratives in the same fictional area and combined the tapestry of local history with current themes and modern consciousness.

In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich has continued the multi-ethnic dimension of her writing, weaving together the layered relationships among residents of farms, towns and reservations; their shared histories, secrets, relationships and antipathies; and the complexities for later generations of re-imagining their ancestors' overlapping pasts. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2009.

Erdrich's 2010 book, Shadow Tag, was a departure for her, as she focuses on a failed marriage.

Erdrich is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Ojibwa and Chippewa). Erdrich also has German, French and American ancestry. One sister, Heidi, publishes under the name Heid E. Erdrich; she is a poet who also resides in Minnesota. Another sister, Lise Erdrich, has written children's books and collections of fiction and essays. For the past few years, the three Erdrich sisters have hosted annual writers workshops on the Turtle Mountain Indian Reservation in North Dakota.

The award-winning photographer Ronald W. Erdrich is one of their cousins. He lives and works in Abilene, Texas. He was named "Star Photojournalist of the Year" in 2004 by the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors association. (Adapted from Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
In The Plague of Doves, Erdrich has created an often gorgeous, sometimes maddeningly opaque portrait of a community strangled by its own history. Pluto is one of those places we read about now and then when big-city papers run features about the death of small-town America. When you grow up in such a place, people know that your mother was a wild child back in high school. They know why your uncle talks to himself in the grocery store. What Erdrich knows is that this history, built up over generations, yields a kind of claustrophobia that has only one cure: Leave.
Bruce Barcott - New York Times Review

Writing in prose that combines the magical sleight of hand of Gabriel Garcia Marquez with the earthy, American rhythms of Faulkner, Ms. Erdrich traces the connections between these characters and their many friends and relatives with sympathy, humor and the unsentimental ardor of a writer who sees that the tragedy and comedy in her people's lives are ineluctably commingled.... Her storytelling here is supple and assured, easily navigating the wavering line between a recognizable, psychological world and the more arcane world of legend and fable...arguably her most ambitious—and in many ways, her most deeply affecting—work yet.
Michiko Kakutani - New York Times

What marks these stories—some of which appeared in the New Yorker and the Atlantic—is what has always set Erdrich apart and made her work seem miraculous: the jostling of pathos and comedy, tragedy and slapstick in a peculiar dance. As horrific as the crimes at the heart of this novel are, other sections remind us that Erdrich is a great comic writer. When Mooshum isn't leading Eve through the history of her family, he's daring the local Catholic priest to save him or pursuing alcohol and romance with dogged, hilarious determination. Some of the funniest moments take place during a funeral, and even the murders and lynchings that bleed so much heartache are heightened by incongruous notes of humor.
Ron Charles - Washington Post

Erdrich's 13th novel, a multigenerational tour de force of sin, redemption, murder and vengeance, finds its roots in the 1911 slaughter of a farming family near Pluto, N. Dak. The family's infant daughter is spared, and a posse forms, incorrectly blames three Indians and lynches them. One, Mooshum Milk, miraculously survives. Over the next century, descendants of both the hanged men and the lynch mob develop relationships that become deeply entangled, and their disparate stories are held together via principal narrator Evelina, Mooshum Milk's granddaughter, who comes of age on an Indian reservation near Pluto in the 1960s and '70s and forms two fateful adolescent crushes: one on bad-boy schoolmate Corwin Peace and one on a nun. Though Evelina doesn't know it, both are descendants of lynch mob members. The plot splinters as Evelina enrolls in college and finds work at a mental asylum; Corwin spirals into a life of crime; and a long-lost violin (its backstory is another beautiful piece of the mosaic) takes on massive significance. Erdrich plays individual narratives off one another, dropping apparently insignificant clues that build to head-slapping revelations as fates intertwine and the person responsible for the 1911 killing is identified.
Publishers Weekly

Erdrich adds more layers of history to her community centered on an Ojibwe reservation in rural North Dakota, and as her loyal readers understand, she is going to make us work for it. This latest novel (after The Game of Silence, a novel for children) begins with a mysterious killing. As the people of the town of Pluto get the chance to tell their stories, they are attempting to reconcile the tangible with the spiritual, the native with the Eurocentric, and the reason behind the murders is hidden within the struggle. Be it the power of nature, the power of the holy, or the power of one's ancestry, the people that populate these linked tales are at the mercy of unseen forces. Erdrich's stories require our patience, as we are offered bits and scraps that we must somehow arrange in order to get to the sum of their parts. She gives us credit for being smart enough to see the big picture, and the end result is always worth the effort. This work serves to bolster her body of work, and we are fortunate that such a gifted storyteller continues to focus her gaze on this region of the continent. Highly recommended for all fiction collections.
Susanne Wells - Library Journal

The latest Erdrich novel about the Ojibwes and the whites they live among in North Dakota spirals around a terrible multiple murder that reverberates down through generations of a community. In the 1960s, Evelina Harp's Ojibwe grandfather, Mooshum, tells mesmerizing stories of his past. Having found a murdered family and saved the surviving baby, Mooshum and three Ojibwe friends were blamed for the killings and lynched by a mob of local whites in 1911. For reasons not immediately apparent, Mooshum was spared at the last moment, but his friends died. Evelina's first boyfriend is Corwin Peace, whose ancestor was one of those lynched. Her favorite teacher, a nun, descends from one of the mob leaders. And Evelina's middle-class parents of mixed heritage straddle the two cultures. Aunt Neve Harp sent her banker husband, who is Corwin's father, to prison after he arranged Neve's kidnapping by Corwin's then teenage uncle Billy in a phony ransom subplot (a little reminiscent of the movie Fargo). Spiritual Billy evolves into the tyrannical leader of a religious cult until his wife Marn Wolde, the daughter of farmers whose land he's taken over, kills him to save her children. While in college Evelina ends up briefly in a mental hospital where she gets to know Marn's lunatic uncle Warren. Corwin, under the positive influence of Judge Coutts and his new wife, Evelina's Aunt Geraldine, becomes a musician playing the same violin that once belonged to his ancestors. Judge Coutts's previous lover Cordelia, an older woman and a doctor who won't treat Indians, was once saved by Mooshum and his friends. Guilt and redemption pepper these self-sufficient, intertwining stories,and readers who can keep track of the characters will find their efforts rewarded. The magic lies in the details of Erdrich's ever-replenishing mythology, whether of a lost stamp collection or a boy's salvation. A lush, multilayered book. 
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions 
Use our LitLovers Book Club Resources; they can help with discussions for any book:

How to Discuss a Book (helpful discussion tips)
Generic Discussion Questions—Fiction and Nonfiction
Read-Think-Talk (a guided reading chart)

Also consider these LitLovers talking points to help get a discussion started for The Plague of Doves:

1. Spirituality is a powerful theme in the book. What might be the symbolic meaning of the doves? (See also LitCourse 9 on symbolism.) Do you see them as Christian messengers, or (given that they're not white) do they represent a Chippewa heaven?

2. You might talk about the different kinds of spirituality as they compete for the human soul. Also, think about how sexuality is treated differently in the Chippewa and Christian religious traditions.

3. Another theme is the land—the Chippewa's ties to and identification with the land and their dispossession from it. Despite her dreams of Paris, Evelina comes to understand that her identity is tied up with her tribe's loss of their land.

4. Storytelling is a structural device Erdrich uses in the novel as a way to bind past and present—as well as a way to evoke Chippewa traditions and way of life. Do the stories enlarge your understanding of the novel or do you feel they are a distraction? Or what?

5. How does your understanding of Mooshum change by the end of the book?

(Questions by LitLovers. Please feel free to use them, online or off, with attribution. Thanks.)

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