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Review: Louise Erdrich's 'Plague of Doves' explores crime and punishment, present and future

Louise Erdrich's 13th novel, The Plague of Doves, is big-hearted and rambling, a dense patchwork of beautifully elevated language colored with a supernatural tint that's part magic realism, part an intermingling of American Indian spiritualism with Catholic mysticism. The effect is often mesmerizing.

Erdrich, as is her habit, takes a Faulknerian approach, passing the narrative from one character to the next. It's a virtuoso feat as she skips among generations, shuttling between the 1800s and the present to reveal the life story of a dying community — Pluto, a white town straddling the Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota.

And yet the appeal of The Plague of Doves its gravitational force pulls readers toward the solution of a century-old murder mystery — might be defined more simply as superb storytelling. These assorted tales, some of which previously appeared as short stories in the New Yorker, the Atlantic and elsewhere, don't always link organically. But each is a carefully polished gem, worthy of savoring on its own.

The central sequence, which colors practically every other aspect of the novel, is a double horror set in 1911, when a farm family is brutally murdered. Angry townspeople blame local Indians, promptly lynching two teenagers and an adult.

The hanging takes place on a gorgeous day: "The sky was the sweetest color of blue. The horizon was dusty with a hint of green, just like the egg of a robin, and the clouds were delicate, no more than tiny white breast feathers way up high." One of the boys, Mooshum, survives the "rough justice," apparently thanks to a twist of fate.

That's hardly the only striking set piece in a book peopled with descendants of the trio of Indian victims and/or their executioners. Mooshum's granddaughter, Evelina, is at the center of several of the most compelling, and funniest, story strands.

She seems to express her identity through the objects of her affection. Evelina falls in love with classmate Corwin Peace and traces his name hundreds of times on her body, thus sparking an accidental orgasm. She also develops a crush on Mary Anita Buckendorf, called Sister Godzilla by some, a particularly unattractive nun whose great-grandfather participated in the lynching. After a stint in college, Evelina falls for an emotionally disturbed young woman at a mental asylum.

Another section, one of several that might easily expand into its own book, focuses on Billy Peace, Corwin's uncle, a would-be gangster who finds salvation and then starts a cult, his hold on his followers expanding with his waistline. During a lightning storm, he acquires even more power: "A rope of golden fire snakes down and wraps Billy twice. He goes entirely black. A blue light pours from his chest. Then silence. A hushed suspension."

The interrelated characters also include Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, who eventually marries Evelina's aunt; his longtime mistress, sole survivor of that slaughter on the farm, now a doctor who refuses to treat Indians; the hardy, European-born pioneers who fought snow, starvation and flooding to found Pluto; and Father Cassidy, a.k.a. Old Hope Along, who turns apoplectic when his faith is challenged, even jokingly.

"We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers, and bureaucrats," Evelina, narrating the first section of the book, explains of her mixed-blood people. Given the enormous passions and apocalyptic happenings experienced by Pluto's residents, that's pure understatement.

Philip Booth's first published short story, "The Night Frank Sinatra Saved Pop's Life," appeared recently in the literary journal "Florida English."

The Plague

of Doves

By Louise Erdrich

Harper, 314 pages, $25.95

Review: Louise Erdrich's 'Plague of Doves' explores crime and punishment, present and future 06/21/08 [Last modified: Monday, November 1, 2010 12:04pm]
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