The Plague of DovesThe Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Not all novels are good at meandering. I suppose this has something to do with your expectations when you begin to read. But with The Plague of Doves, which pinwheels around a generation-ago murder on a Ojibwe reservation, its many points of view work as living artifacts to reconstruct not only generations of poverty and racism, but the entire settlement history of Pluto, North Dakota. I’ve wanted to read Erdrich for a long while, and I finally began with this one because it was a Pulitzer finalist; my only expectation was to take my time and enjoy the writing, and I was delighted to find it entertaining and sometimes outright funny despite its seriousness.

The story begins with a plague of doves two generations back, related to one of the most important characters, Evelina, an adolescent girl whose father owns one of the most valuable stamp collections in the world. Other characters include her storytelling grandfather Mooshum, the only survivor of a vigilante hanging who is in love with the once-kidnapped, thrice-married editor of the town’s historical newsletter; Evelina’s great-uncle Shamengwa, whose violin has an ethereal history; Judge Coutts, a descendent of the town’s first settlers. Erdrich makes the most of relics in this novel–the stamps, violin, a pair of old shoes, Coutt’s storied house–but it’s the characters themselves who are Pluto’s true artifacts. And as with the plague of doves, Mooshum’s stories are slightly embellished but hold a kernel of truth about Pluto.

Much of the book was written and published as standalone short stories in The New Yorker and elsewhere, which partially accounts for its many-jointed narrative. Yet it’s not a disjointed one: In such a large story space (i.e., four generations on and around a complicated family tree) the independent tales pace it and give it structure. The murder holds them together, sometimes from the distant background, allowing itself to be solved piece by piece┬áby the reader and lone survivor only. Even so, the only real resolution we’re offered is the certainty of loss, and that all that’s precious will return to dust.

And I’m not sure you can write about Native American history without ending up there.

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