The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The Plague of Doves was acclaimed by many as Louise Erdrich’s masterpiece when it was published a decade ago. It is easy to see the appeal: the novel is a collage of voices narrating a set of big scenes, from the eponymous plague onward, that only gradually disclose themselves as parts of a complex historical narrative never quite presented in full. At the center of the novel is a gruesome event that occurred in 1911 in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota: an unknown gunman murdered all but the youngest child of the Lochren family, and, in reprisal, the white town elders of Pluto lynched the four Native Americans who discovered the crime scene even though they were clearly innocent.
Most of the novel is set around the 1960s, during the childhood and young adulthood of Evelina Harp, who narrates several of the novel’s sections. A studious and inquisitive girl of mixed white and Ojibwe heritage, she begins, around the age of 11, to piece together the events of the lynching, of which her beloved grandfather is the sole survivor. The main thread of the whole novel is Evelina’s slow discovery that almost everyone she cares about is not only connected to the lynching, but was somehow even morally complicit or culpable in it—not excluding her Native American grandfather. “Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood,” observes one character, and another says, “I think of how history works itself out in the living.” This brooding sense of historical determinism would be oppressive—and potentially troubling: a racialist mystification—if the characters were not so ironic about it, so determined to escape, even if only in their religious, sexual, or artistic raptures (and the author is no less ironic: a startling allusion near the novel’s climax to The Crying of Lot 49 signals an allegiance to a postmodern poetics of uncertainty rather than the iron laws of a racial fate).
But The Plague of Doves is not a detective story: the narrative of discovery is mingled with a variety of other elements, including Evelina’s cultural and literary ambitions, her experiments with drugs, and her questioning of her apparent bisexuality; Evelina’s story is also notable for a portrayal of Catholicism that emphasizes that religion’s erotic mingling of flesh and spirit, even as Evelina and her grandfather take pleasure in satirizing the hypocritical puritanism of the priests. All of this is handled with delicacy and drollery as Evelina narrates from the distance of age, both validating her youthful ecstasies and putting their more otherworldly aspects in perspective:
I do not read Anaïs Nin—she cannot possibly help me now. I am past all that and, anyway, she helped me get into trouble by providing the paradigm of a life I was always too backwards, or provincial, or Catholic, or reservation- or family-bound to absorb and pull off.
Evelina is in her literary yearning but unpretentious wit a character who seems much like her author, and probably not too dissimilar from her audience. That her author did in the end pull it off—that is, become a literary success, a star and arbiter of culture—only adds to the satisfying irony.
This polyphonic novel does have several other narrators, though. Next in prominence to Evelina is Antone Bazil Coutts, a tribal judge who recounts, as a freestanding man-vs.-nature novella, his white grandfather’s adventurous participation in the founding of Pluto (this section takes aim at the greed of expansionists and developers and their neglect of nature’s sacral dimension), as well as his own role in the travails of several characters whose own lives are the working out of the 1911 lynching’s dismal heritage, particularly members of the Peace family (these episodes including a farcical crime tale about a kidnapping scheme and a heartwarming if not mawkish story about the reformation of a juvenile delinquent).
Coutts is an almost archetypally humane legal authority, his judgments informed by a multicultural mix of Indian politics and Greco-Roman philosophy (this to contrast the Catholic ecstasies and their answering anti-clerical humor in Evelina’s narrative), and his portrayal would risk falling into Atticus Finch sentimentalism were his sexuality, like every character’s, not given its due. He is courting Evelina’s aunt when we meet him, but an affair with a much older white woman in his past may prove the key to the novel’s central mystery: who was the guilty party in the massacre for which the Indians were falsely blamed?
The men were lynched, we learn, on a farm owned by the Wolde family, and the novel’s central narrative—told in the voice of the family’s daughter, Marn Wolde—heightens the novel’s themes of religious fanaticism and culture clash. In Marn’s story, Billy Peace—another scion of one of the lynched Indians, who was earlier involved in the kidnapping plot narrated by Coutts—returns from his time in the army as an itinerant preacher and spirit Marn away from her family farm to be his bride. When husband and wife return to the farm, Billy claims it for the small congregation of what has become an abusive cult held together solely by his outsize personality. This narrative is remarkable both for Marn’s consistent ambivalence toward Billy, even at his worst, and the lengths she goes to escape from his thrall. Erdrich’s magical realism, usually checked by the irony that comes with a story told from multiple self-interested and self-aggrandizing perspectives, here becomes truly larger than life, as when Billy is struck by lightning:
He is a mound, black and tattered, on all fours. A snuffling creature of darkness burnt blind. We watch as he rises, gathers himself up slowly, pushes down on his thighs with huge hands. Finally, he stands upright. I grab my mother’s fingers, shocked limp. Billy is alive, bigger than before, swollen with unearthly power. We step away from the window. He bawls into the sky, shaking his head back and forth as the clouds open. Harsh silver curtains of water close across the scene. We turn away from the window.
“Mom,” I say, “we’ve got to stop him.”
“No one’s ever going to stop him,” she answers.
But The Plague of Doves was never all that tethered to social realism anyway, even though its social observations are acute: it does begin with the titular quasi-Biblical plague, which symbolically removes any guarantee of peace from the narrative. Nature, religion, and sex all prove to be sources of unreal rapture in the novel; they are also forces destructive and indifferent to human happiness.
As with certain other female authors, so with Erdrich: were her books published under a male pseudonym, they would probably be reviled as sexist trash and tossed in the same historical dustbin where some would like to throw Roth and Bellow. Erdrich writes about sex with an almost total lack of moralism. She carefully charts every mixed and confused emotion, every mitigating and damning ethical circumstance, that constitute the whole complexity of eros, a complexity not captured by the political and juridical language currently favored. Judge Coutts observes:
But of course the entire reservation is rife with conflicting passions. We can’t seem to keep our hands off one another, it is true, and every attempt to foil our lists through law and religious dictums seems bound instead to excite transgression.
Sex is where nature erupts into culture and alters it, Erdrich seems to claim; it is therefore salvific insofar as it promises change and difference (Coutts selects for his tombstone the motto, “The universe is transformation“), even though change implies destruction as well as creation. Erdrich’s amoralism or aestheticism of desire is best expressed in The Plague of Doves through the character of Billy Peace: his sexual charisma is depicted as nearly supernatural from his early adulthood forward, so that a woman he kidnaps (Neve Harp) and his long-tormented wife (Marn Wolde), as well as many of the members of his cult, willingly submit to him sexually and seem to hold him throughout their lives as an erotic standard:
He held my wrists behind my back and forced me down onto the carpet. Then he bent over me and gently, fast and slow, helplessly, without end or beginning, he went in and out until I grew bored, until I wanted to sleep, until I moaned, until I cried out again, until I wanted nothing else, until I wanted hum the way I had the very first time, that first dry summer.
And Billy, though he becomes from one perspective the novel’s greatest villain, is also the scion of the lynched Cuthbert Peace; therefore his imperial religiosity, which engulfs the white family’s farm on whose land the lynching occurred, may be read as a kind of belated vengeance upon the white community, which Marn as narrator almost grasps:
The end of our land bumps smack up to the reservation boundary. This was reservation, Billy says, and should be again. This was my family’s land, Indian land. Will be again. He says it flat out with a lack of emotion that disturbs me. Something’s there. Something different underneath.
In this moment—as in the novel at large—there is no resolution to the dilemmas of race and gender, history and religion. Erdrich presents no answers and asks few answerable questions: rather, she provides a set of almost unfathomably complex circumstances, often presented at first as a series of comic set pieces or jokes.
Making a fourth with nature, religion, and sex is art. While the novel is named for a symbol blending nature and religion, its most insistent motif is that of music. Violin music plays in its mysterious prologue, and two different violins pass with all the fatedness of heritage throughout the novel. In fact, music is a place where cultures may meet and enrich rather than destroy each other:
He treated this instrument with the reverence we accord our drums, which are considered living beings and require from us food, water, shelter, and love.
Erdrich shows art to be as cruel as nature, religion, and sex, as heedless of morality and society:
That I must play was more important to me than my father’s pain. […] It was a question of survival, after all. If I had not found the music, I would have died of the silence.
But like nature, religion, and sex, art is necessary if we are ever to be liberated, even momentarily, from the killing inertia of the quotidian and its historical determinations:
The music was more than music—at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.
In this way, Erdrich justifies her own literary style: The Plague of Doves, in the grandeur of its incident and its impressive variety of genres (comic realism, adventure story, crime drama, suspense thriller, tall tale, coming-of-age story, and more) does tend to “live at that pitch” more than most ostensibly realistic novels, but its use of humor and its reminder of the very real history of its region and its country give it a solid ground from which to launch its flights of fancy.
As some less positive reviews note, Erdrich probably does put too much heterogenous material into one book, and the novel sometimes seems to drift away from its intended focus (the lynching) toward the rather less historically significant and politically correct topics of ecstasy and desire—as if Erdrich’s Romantic inclinations were struggling against her sense that her audience expects an edifying “social justice” story from her. But because I share Evelina’s (and Erdrich’s) Catholic and provincial upbringing, I am always ready to forgive sins of ambition and excess.
The Plague of Doves ends with a Macondo-like intimation of Pluto’s slow death (“All who celebrate shall be ghosts”): all human effort, good and ill, male and female, Native and white, will be devoured by time and nature, and will probably deserve it too. In the meantime, a concert—a symphony: a work of many parts with a resounding crescendo.
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