The Plague of Doves

Pluto is a good name for a town in rural North Dakota: small, cold, remote. The fictional town in Louise Erdrich?s latest novel, The Plague of Doves, is not out of place in a state where towns like Bonetrail, Zap, and Wing have been losing population since the 1950s while others have crumbled into husks, eaten by the prairie wind.

My Norwegian-American grandparents, who lived in Fargo, would take us children on long drives across the plains. My grandmother?s favorite town was Ayr, and I remember when the number of inhabitants on Ayr?s highway sign declined to less than ten. “Poor Ayr,” my grandmother said. In Doves, “the dead of Pluto outnumber the living.”

As a Dakotan exile, I have always been drawn to Erdrich?s writing because of my father?s side of the family, German Chippewas in Grand Forks. Erdrich?s North Dakota Chippewa novels, written out of homesickness when she lived in New Hampshire, affirm my sense of home. She accurately captures the laconically judgmental wit of people living in a spacious, indomitable land. In Doves, she describes astounding, capricious storms, a winter sunrise “so immediate, so gorgeous, so grim” and the very soil: “rich, black clods you felt like holding in your fist and biting.”

In Erdrich?s signature meta-narrative style that spirals through past and present time, the repercussions of the unsolved murder of a farm family in 1911 echo through the life of every character in Pluto. One of the central narrators, Evelina Harp, is 12 in the 1960s when her grandfather Mooshum tells her about a second crime, a harrowing tragedy of vigilante injustice in reaction to the murders. Her gradual discovery of Mooshum?s role in these events changes the way she feels about her grandfather, and everyone she knows.

Doves, Erdrich?s 11th novel, is a departure from the rest, as it does not involve any characters from the earlier books. The location of the reservation and its distrustful relationship with border towns is familiar, and although she understandably insists that the reservation depicted is not Turtle Mountain, where she is enrolled, the details are telling.

Mooshum is Michif, a term for mixed-blood Chippewa or Cree people used in North Dakota (it?s M?tis in Canada). He?s old enough to remember the history of the reservation and carries some of the tribe?s cultural traditions, such as storytelling and priest baiting. Much of the humor in the novel comes from Mooshum, whether it?s wisecracks or Wile E. Coyotesque shenanigans.

His real name is Seraph Milk. The families in this story have ethereal-sounding names: Harp, Milk, Peace, reflecting complex religious ironies. Rather than being forcibly converted, Erdrich?s Chippewa characters have assimilated Catholic images within their indigenous passions and mysteries.

The plague of doves, a mysterious event that fades, disappointingly without elaboration, was experienced by Mooshum in 1896. Were the doves messengers of the biblical Holy Ghost, or like the buffalo, who also massed and disappeared, representatives of a more Chippewa heaven? A clue may be that these doves were not white. In perhaps the most sensual image in a novel packed with transcendent erotic scenes, Mooshum stands “n delight, watching the women?s naked, round, brown legs thrash forward” through a sea of murmuring brown doves.

Sex and spirituality vie for people?s souls and sanity, but sexuality is more often a healer, celebrating the spirit in the flesh, while religion is a delusional drug. With biting satire and occasional caricature verging on the grotesque, Erdrich sends up hypocritical clergy, charismatic Christian cults and the snake-handling, speaking-in-tongues supernaturalism of non-Indian characters. Meanwhile, the Michif preacher Billy Peace mesmerizes his white flock out of their assets: “The Antichrist is among us / He is the plastic in our wallets.”

In contrast, Erdrich’s native characters are not stereotypically mystical Indians shape-shifting in the bush. Nor are they casino-rich, conniving politicians. Evelina notes, “We are a tribe of office workers, bank tellers, book readers and bureaucrats.”

Still, there is subtle spiritual power in this story. There is a violin that takes a magical journey and bees that enact sweet revenge on a developer, and the notion of progress itself: “The swarm had left the rubble and built their houses beneath the earth. They were busy in the graveyard right now, filling the skulls with white combs and coffins with black honey.”

Mooshum?s trickster storytelling reflects the flexible Anishinaabe (Chippewa/Ojibwe) oral tradition, the rich specificity of the Ojibwemowin language and the local Michif dialect, a pungent mix of Cree verbs and French nouns. One of Mooshum?s characters, Liver Eater, invokes both the ancient cannibal manito Windigo and possibly the evil spirit of alcohol, Mooshum?s affliction. Later he plays with the idea of a hungry story, a story so alive it devours its audience, and several of Doves? characters have voracious appetites for reading.

In a refreshing take on native identity, the young Evelina wants to be seen as French. She has a crush on Paris, and her adventures are driven by her obsessions: with her cousin, with her teacher (a nun), and with Ana?s Nin. An affair with an unstable androgynous woman leads her to contemplate coming out as a lesbian, not an easy decision in rural North Dakota.

Erdrich has focused on gender fluidity in other novels; however, it is another theme, dispossession, that brings Evelina to a more complete understanding of herself as native: “I saw the loss of the land was wedged inside of them forever. This loss would enter me too.” For native people, loss is leavened by survival, as another Michif character, Judge Antone Coutts, explains, “The old tribal relationship to the land in dreams and intimate knowledge called love is why they still exist as tribes.”

When Evelina?s voice falters, it is due to the structure of the novel. Doves is constructed around previously published short stories. “The Reptile Garden” and “Shamengwa” are beautifully interwoven to mesh with the larger piece. Marn Wolde?s story is overwhelming in its power but takes the reader frustratingly far away from the main characters. “Come In” is narrated by a minor character, and distracting in its provenance. While Evelina becomes captivating in “Sister Godzilla,” her voice is detached and didactic in the opening scenes when she looks back in time at her oddly calculating child self or gives a lesson in M?tis history. When she reports that a character in one of Mooshum?s stories actually existed, and names the source text, it?s unclear who did the research, the character or the author. Evelina?s authority is not explained, and therefore hard to trust. Similarly, a latecomer character, who unveils a chilling twist, concludes the novel with an unconvincing conceit that it was written as a newsletter for the Pluto historical society.

Doves is a challenging read that would be more accessible if an Ojibwe/Michif glossary and family tree charts were included. It?s necessary to flip back to see who?s who, and when (there are three characters named Joseph). I was repeatedly haunted by a strong image Erdrich created in the chapter about the first surveyors of Pluto?s town site, who set out in the dead of winter. Among their provisions is a thick wool quilt, pieced by Icelandic women, and large enough to cover nine men and a dog. I kept wondering if the novel?s concept would expand to cover all the characters and substories within it. In The Plague of Doves, although some of the edges are flapping, the center holds.