Louise Erdrich has been listening to 'Plague of Doves' characters for a long time

Louise Erdrich, who grew up in North Dakota, sets her new book, The Plague of Doves, in the fictional town of Pluto, N.D. The author, daughter of an Ojibwe Indian mother, also has a bookstore in Minneapolis that sells Indian art, jewelry and craftwork.

Associated Press

Louise Erdrich, who grew up in North Dakota, sets her new book, The Plague of Doves, in the fictional town of Pluto, N.D. The author, daughter of an Ojibwe Indian mother, also has a bookstore in Minneapolis that sells Indian art, jewelry and craftwork.

NEW YORK CITY

A glance at the "E" section of your local bookstore would not give the impression that Louise Erdrich is a woman willing to wait.

Since 1984, the year she debuted with not one, but two books, the Minnesota-born novelist has published more than 20 volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and children's literature.

She also raised four daughters and started an independent bookstore in Minneapolis.

This year, however, Erdrich unveiled proof that she has patience — when she must.

The Plague of Doves, her 12th novel for adults, has landed to rave reviews. "Her most deeply affecting work yet," wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani.

The book has been with Erdrich since the early 1980s, though, whispering to the author while she worked on other books.

"I knew this particular incident was going to be part of it," says the 53-year-old novelist, dressed in black jeans and a sweater at a New York City hotel.

"I just didn't know how I was going to approach it."

The incident Erdrich refers to was a brutal one. On Nov. 13, 1897, a mob of 40 men broke into a North Dakota jail and lynched three Indians — two young boys (one of whom was named Paul Holy Track) and a man — who were among a group being tried for the murders of six members of a white family.

In The Plague of Doves, she brilliantly reimagines this event, bringing to life an entire fictional North Dakota community and tracking how the crime filters down through subsequent generations. The quest for justice is diluted as families involved in the hangings intermarry and mingle, the tribal members keeping the story alive through folklore, the whites trying to pretend it never happened.

"In the beginning, the whites had all the power," Erdrich says, "but as one reviewer put it: The Indians have the history."

Although she is often compared with William Faulkner, whose fictional Yoknapatawpha County is the closest comparison to the world Erdrich has conjured in North Dakota, her books are not nearly so blood-soaked.

Erdrich says part of this comes from her upbringing. "I lived a very sheltered childhood, a very sweet childhood" she says, referring to growing up one of seven kids in rural North Dakota.

"It's against my nature to believe how evil people can be — I didn't see cruelty a lot, so I didn't understand it. When it became apparent that the world was different from what I had known as a child, it took me a long time to understand it."

Her father, who is German, and her mother, who is Ojibwe, were both schoolteachers. "I was lucky to have grandparents around, too," Erdrich says. She listened to their stories and asked questions, something she continues to do. "I still feel like I listen more than I tell."

Clearly, it's an inspiration. Like all of Erdrich's novels, from her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning debut Love Medicine to the recent Four Souls, this new book is full of dozens of memorable characters, whom Erdrich conjures in just a few deft strokes each.

Most of her novels take place in a fictional town called Argus on the edge of an Indian reservation, where characters appear and reappear. The Plague of Doves, however, ventures slightly outside this terrain and features an all-new cast.

So the voices of the main characters — a recent college graduate, a judge, a grandfather and a doctor — came to her over time, their stories in shards. "I just feel like I get to take down what they're telling me." At times, Erdrich can sound like something closer to a medium than a fiction writer. But she is keen to deflect that impression.

"A voice that is going to take over a story is someone you will have prepared for quite some time without knowing it," she says. "I've been reading what the judge in this book read, for it informs his voice."

She works hard at her desk, too, editing, cutting and revising. Her oeuvre is so sprawling that she works with just one copy editor, who keeps a master list of characters and their timelines.

But for now she is on the road — and patiently waiting for more voices to arrive.

John Freeman is writing a book on the tyranny of e-mail for Scribner.

Louise Erdrich has been listening to 'Plague of Doves' characters for a long time 06/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:04pm]

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