I seldom buy a new hardback hot off the presses, but when I read the third enthusiastic review of The Plague of Doves, I rushed down to my local independent bookstore and ordered Louise Erdrich’s latest. I don’t regret a penny.
It was a little odd at points to find short stories I’d read in magazines now appearing as sections of a novel, but that did nothing to impair my enjoyment and admiration of this superb work.
The Plague of Doves opens with one of those unforgettable passages you run into now and again:
The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling. That’s the first sentence. A couple of hundred more juicy words finish the scene, and the novel is set up with superb clarity and excitement.
The rest of the book is centered on that opening scene, but you don’t always know it. Sometimes you might even think Erdrich has forgotten it entirely as she beautifully a world of the past being drowned in pigeon (dove) shit, or that she uses it merely as a way of focusing on the oppression and injustice of the three innocent Indians hung for the crime. Three and a half if you count the boy who was cut down before he died. But by the end, it turns out that every event flows from and back to that crime, that every character is somehow involved or at least affected by it, and that the implications are much deeper than who should pay for the murder. There’s a point in the middle where a reader sharper than I am could have figured out most of the mystery, but I had to wait till the end. Still very satisfying.
Erdrich hasn’t lost a bit of her signature facility for comedy amid pain. Perhaps the best moment among many in Plague of Doves occurs when the soon-to-be-executed Indians are on their way to the hanging tree in the back of the vigilantes’ wagon:
“When you speak of my death to others, tell them of my courage. I am going to sing my death song.”
“I hope you can remember it before you shit your pants,” said Asiginak.
“Aiii! I am trying to think how it goes.”
Both men began to hum very softly.
“To tell you the truth,” said Cuthbert, after a little while, “I was never given a death song. I was not considered worth it.”
And there are the names. Mooshum. Mustache Maude Black. Nonette. Marne.
And the age-old Erdrich-old conflicts between Christianity and Indian spirituality are worked out in yet again other intricate and baffling ways.
And after all these years and all these books, there is something new as well. A subtlety of design that holds back on delivering the sense of corrupted wholeness, interconnectedness, that pervades Erdrich’s world view, holds that delivery back until almost the very last line. Or, come to think of it, holds it back even beyond that. For what happened to Marne, with her kids and her snakes and her unique cosmology? And did Corwin and Evelina ever make it to Paris? Keep writing, Louise, I want to meet up with those folks again.