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Balancing act

The lyrical Plague of Doves plays with the tensions between past and present, myth and reality

The eldest of seven children of an Ojibwe-French mother and a German-American father, Erdrich grew up in North Dakota. The eldest of seven children of an Ojibwe-French mother and a German-American father, Erdrich grew up in North Dakota. (Bettina Strauss)
Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Ann Harleman
April 27, 2008

The Plague of Doves
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 313 pp., $25.95

You could read Louise Erdrich's latest book for its wisdom. The author of 11 previous novels - including the award-winning "Love Medicine" - Erdrich writes from a philosophical, cultural, and historical perspective that is rich and deeply rewarding. Or you could read "The Plague of Doves" for its poetry. The author of three collections of poems, Erdrich brings a poet's eye and ear to her material. But in the end, you'll read this book for its stories. Stories within stories, just as the past exists inside the present. Stories told by their characters - to each other, to themselves - until storytelling becomes a form of communion that uses language to transcend language.

In its structure "The Plague of Doves" - not really a novel but a collection of linked stories - embodies this idea. (Most of the stories were published previously in places like The New Yorker, and several were also included in such anthologies as "The Best American Short Stories" and "The O. Henry Prize Stories.") Organized around two primary characters - young Evelina Harp and Judge Antone Bazil Coutts - the tale takes place over a century in and around the fictional town of Pluto, N.D., on the edge of an Ojibwe reservation. The narrative weaves back and forth in time and is handed off, "Farmer in the Dell" style, to several lesser characters. If this sounds complicated, and even centrifugal, it is. But Erdrich's skill and the sheer beauty of her prose make it work.

"The Plague of Doves" extends and deepens the major themes of Erdrich's previous fiction. Evelina, like Erdrich herself, is European-American on her father's side and French/Native American on her mother's. But Erdrich is concerned with something larger than multiculturalism. All of the characters in this tight community made tighter by intermarriage carry the terrible weight of the past. In 1911 a local family was massacred by a never-to-be-known assailant, and four young Native Americans became the innocent victims of vigilante justice. Evelina is descended from both the wrongly accused and the accusers. Her beloved grandfather, Mooshum, was the only one of the four to survive the lynching; her father's adoptive father was one of the lynchers. How do individuals - how does a community - absorb such contradictions? How do we live in the present without being destroyed by the past?

Storytelling is how.

A story told by Evelina's great-uncle, the gifted fiddler Shamengwa - himself a character inside a story told by Judge Coutts - makes real to us the saving grace of art. "It was a question of survival, after all. If I had not found the music, I would have died of the silence." Over and over, in "The Plague of Doves," Erdrich gives us landscapes, weather, actions, sensations, characters, just that real. Here is Mooshum, whose "eyes shone from slits cut deep into his face. . . . From time to time, as he spoke, we glimpsed the murky scraggle of his teeth." Here is Evelina, just entering puberty: "That summer my breasts turned to sore buds, and I almost cried when I found hair where it didn't belong." Erdrich can render a character in a single phrase: the "plush embrace" of Dorothea Swivel, lover of the grandfather of Judge Coutts; the "scary cheerleader eyes" of Nonette, lover of Evelina. She can tell us how to hunt a turtle - "He baited the turtle until it bit down on a stick, then sawed its head off. The head did not let go of the stick and the eyes continued to blink even after its body was chopped into a ravishing soup" - or, with equal aptness, how to handle grief: "I breathe pain in, out, and the stuff sticks inside of me like tar and nicotine from cigarettes, making each breath just a little more difficult." And who but a poet could give us a violin case "of womanly shape" or the sound of a falling body "like a dropped beef" or the feel of fear as "the taste of a penny caught in my throat"?

Erdrich's ear is as sharp as her eye. Her diction runs the gamut from "fixy" through "opinionate" to "prognathic" and "aspergillum." Her characters' voices - whether narrating, arguing, grieving, or just chewing the fat - are as distinct and evocative as the varied instruments of a full orchestra. Her dialogue rivals that of Eudora Welty:

" 'Is your sister fond of flowers? What is her favorite?'

" 'Stinging nettles.'

" 'Would you say she favors a certain color?'

" 'Fish-belly white.'

" 'What were her charming habits when she was young?'

" 'She could fart the national anthem.'

" 'The whole thing?'

" 'Yes.' "

Art, Erdrich suggests at several points in "The Plague of Doves," both destroys and saves. The stories told by her characters offer pleasures of language, of humor, of sheer narrative momentum, that shine even in the darkest moments of the book. Perhaps these pleasures cannot exist without the darkness, just as the present cannot exist without the past. "I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw out elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles," Evelina tells us. But it is only when Shamengwa's cherished violin is smashed to pieces that the healing truth about Pluto's tragedy comes literally to light.

Ann Harleman (www.annharleman.com) is the author of "Happiness," "Bitter Lake," and "Thoreau's Laundry." Her new novel is "The Year She Disappeared."

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