The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

North America Project 2022

This is an area in which I am a novice, so we’ll start at the beginning. Louise Erdrich (1954 -) “is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians [known as Métis in Canada], a federally recognized tribe of the Anishinaabe (also known as Ojibwe and Chippewa)” from North Dakota (map)(Wiki).

The Métis are of mixed Indigenous and French (‘Voyageur’) ancestry, becoming a distinct group by the mid-19th century, during the fur trade era. I touched on this during my review of RM Ballantyne’s The Young Fur Traders, which is set in the 1840s in the Canadian states over the border from North Dakota.

Erdrich is of course a successful and well-known author, who has written 18 or so novels, seemingly all set in one or two fictional North Dakota Indigenous communities. The Plague of Doves (2008) is the first of three in the ‘Justice trilogy’ – the other two are The Round House (2012) and LaRose (2016).

Let’s get ‘the plague of doves’ out of the way. The novel consists of a series of stories over the space of a hundred or so years, told by four present-day narrators. So we begin with Evelina, the central character, telling her 100 year old grandfather, Mooshum’s story of when he was an altar boy for his Catholic priest step-brother. The town was blanketed in doves which ate everything and which the townspeople would trap, shoot, eat until they were sick of them.

The doves of this legend are Passenger Pigeons “which migrated in enormous flocks, constantly searching for food, shelter, and breeding grounds, and was once the most abundant bird in North America, numbering around 3 billion, and possibly up to 5 billion.” They are now extinct.

Mooshum then 12 or 13, runs off with his best friend, a girl, into the badlands, where they find a protector and after some years marry and return home. When the novel begins Mooshum is a widower living with Evelina’s family and Evelina is a teenager.

The stories which Mooshum, and his brother, Shamengwa, tell Evelina and Evelina’s ‘present-day’ story all slowly reveal connections, this is after all a relatively small community. So Evelina’s ‘boyfriend’ in primary school is Corwin Peace, who fades in and out of the narrative as Evelina becomes an adult, but for instance he is saved from juvenile delinquency by Shamengwa who teaches him to play the violin (and the violin has its own, complicated story).

The story around which all other stories revolve occurred when Mooshum was young. A white farming family is slaughtered. Mooshum and some friends are first on the scene a couple of days later. They discover a baby has survived and they give it some milk. Elements in the white community get up a lynching party and three men/boys with Moochum are hanged but he is spared.

Evelina then has to deal with the fact that her favourite teacher at the convent school is the niece of two men in the lynching party.

The second narrator, the Judge, first tells the story of the founding of the town, Pluto, which is on land illegally carved out of an Indian reservation; and then his story begins to run into Evelina’s as he and Evelina’s aunt become lovers and then husband and wife.

The third narrator, Marn Wolde’s story appears disconnected for a while. She runs off from home with a preacher, Billy Peace and they build up a following elsewhere. But eventually they are back in Pluto, and Billy establishes his congregation on her family land. When that relationship comes to a bloody end we find Marn and Evelina working in the same diner.

I probably have some of this out of order, as I no longer have access to the book which I listened to first on the way over to Melbourne and then again on the way home (and loved it both times).

The fourth and final narrator is Dr. Cordelia Lochren, who it turns out is the baby who survived the massacre. Though somewhere in there, Evelina gets at least one more go as she drops out of college, begins working in the state mental institution, where she has a breakdown and becomes a voluntary inmate. Until Corwin comes to visit her and they walk out together.

I was happiest with The Plague of Doves as Evelina’s coming of age, some of the other stuff I found distracting. But Erdrich obviously intends it to be more. Many readers seem to see the murder and lynching as central – that the main story is of how 80 years later a whole community still revolves around the family killed, the lynchers and the lynched.

What strikes me most is what a middle-class book this is. These are college educated towns people, teachers, lawyers, social workers, doctors. This is not a bad thing, but it is a long way from the fiery, underclass fiction of Marie Munkara say. But as in Munkara, there is a simmering sense of underlying injustice, of isolation from the outside, white world; and also of the links, of parentage, of action, acknowledged and unacknowledged, between members of the community, white and Indigenous.

Erdrich’s writing doesn’t fire me up. From that point of view I much preferred last month’s Nalo Hopkinson. But she writes a complex, involving story which I really must read again, and its sequels.

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Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves, 2008. Harper Audio read by Kathleen McInerney, Peter Francis James. 11 hours.

Upcoming books for North America Project 2022
May: Tanya Talaga, Seven Fallen Feathers
June: Zora Neale Thurston, Their Eyes were watching God

20 thoughts on “The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich

  1. Me too, I’ve tried Erdrich and I don’t get on with her either. But if it’s ok, I’ll add this review to my Indig Lit from Around the World page where there are many novels listed for her but only a couple are reviewed by Australians.
    As you say, the class factor makes a difference. Perhaps middle-class Americans are more comfortable with fiction that supports their ‘work hard, get on’ political philosophy. Of our Indigenous writers, I only know of only Anita Heiss writing a middle-class world, and that’s a political choice that she makes, to assert the fact that there are plenty of successful Indigenous people living middle-class lives without abandoning their Aboriginality. But Melissa Lucashenko, Marie Munkara, Tony Birch and Kim Scott, to name just a few, are writing about the Indigenous underclass.

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    • I got stuck for a couple of nights way off the beaten track – well maybe it was a beaten track, but it certainly wasn’t a bitumised highway – with no internet. Hence the delay in replying.

      Please link these posts in your Indig.Lit page. Hopefully there will be half a dozen North American First Nations authors over the course of the year.

      I’ve read one Heiss ‘Choc.Lit’ romance. It was amusing and as you say, middle class. But Indigenous writing in Australia seems to emphasize the underclass aspect, even though I’m sure most of the writers you mention are themselves middle class – so in Kim Scott’s first novel, True Country, the protagonist is a teacher just out of college plonked into a remote Indigenous community.

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  2. Firstly, the cover art I like, very Escher. Secondly, I had never of this author till a week back when my sister gave a book called Future Home Of the Living God. My sister had read something by Erdrich she really liked, but had struggled with Future. She wants my opinion, but goodness know when I will get to it. Very prolific author I must say.

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    • I have heard of Escher and knew vaguely to what you were referring, but on looking him up I see that you are exactly right. Without the book I’m unable to name the cover designer but here is MC Esher’s site –
      https://mcescher.com/gallery/
      This is my first Erdrich, and as I say, I enjoyed it, she is a very good story teller. Prolific? 19 novels. There are authors who have written a hundred or more.
      Do yourself and your sister a favour and read Future Home, then do us a favour and tell us what you thought of it.

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  3. I think you need to remember that Erdrich has written multiple novels so covers a lot of territory over time I think, compared with Munkara (whom I love as you do). See what she’s writing a few more books in?

    The bingo palace which is my second Erdrich, but first on my blog, has multiple strands and voices too. But they felt true.

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    • Do you think Munkara will stop being angry? That would be sad. I have been using her as my Indigenous ‘standard’ because she writes so well and with such biting satire, but also because she is accessible in a way that the more literary Kim Scott and Alexis Wright are not (I think Wright should be our next Nobel laureate).

      I thought The Plague of Doves was very good as a novel. What I was trying to say was that compared with our Indig.Lit I found it surprisingly mild.

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      • I agree re Munkara being accessible and I adore her satire. As for staying angry, I take your point but being constantly angry is not good for one’s health and that makes me sad too.

        I’m glad you like Erdrich’s writing.

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  4. I think I tried to read this a few years ago, but noped out within a couple of pages when a baby was killed. Am I misremembering that? I’m interested in Erdrich as a writer, but that was my introduction to her, which was not calculated to make me want to read more of her!

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    • I don’t have the book, but I’m pretty sure a baby doesn’t die. In fact the core of the story is that a family dies (not described) but their baby survives. Following the deaths of the family there is a lynching which isn’t pleasant but is I am sure something every US town has in its past. As does Australia, we are finding out. The white/dominant communities of north America and Australia are a long way from acknowledging past crimes, let alone making reparations so it is important that Black and First Nations writers hold us to account.

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  5. All I know is that I read LaRose a number of years back and fell in love with her writing and storytelling style and over time, have accumalated many of her backlist titles. Too tired to say anything else!

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    • Well I’m glad you were able to say that much. I know you recommended LaRose and I will get to it soonish but Plague came up on BorrowBox which is an event too rare to be allowed to pass.

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  6. I always think, “I HAVE to read Louise Erdrich!” and then I don’t. I’m fairly certain I’ve read her short stories here and there in anthologies, so now that I’m actually THINKING about this, I should try a short story collection by her instead of a novel. Based on what you’ve written here, The Plague of Doves almost reads like short stories. I wonder if the book would have been more engaging if she didn’t try to connect them, but spent more time writing different stories set in the same town.

    I’m certain I’ve told you my parents’ house is technically on the Ojibwe reservation in central Michigan, a city that is also home of Central Michigan University, where the mascot is happily and agreeably (this is in total support from the tribe), the Chippewas. The mascot isn’t a racist depiction of a Native American, but the “flying C.” And our motto? Fire Up, Chips! This brief history and how the university has developed a relationship with Central Michigan University is interesting: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Central_Michigan_Chippewas

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    • The Plague of Doves does read like short stories, but linked by characters and theme, so it definitely works as a novel. It will be interesting to see how the other two work as a series. I’m sorry this won’t appear as a ‘Bill recommends’ particularly as you and Biscuit might see a lot to recognise in the background.

      That’s good, the CMU material. Firstly that the usage of First Nations images might be offensive was recognised so long ago; and secondly that CMU worked with the local Chippewas to come up with something that suited them both. It’s interesting though. I couldn’t see UWA branding itself as ‘the Noongars’ as I couldn’t see local Noongars wanting anyone but themselves referred to by that name.

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      • I think the big change was the cultural development and courses at CMU with the assistance of the tribe. On the reservation, they have many culture centers and schools, and all the signs are in both English and Ojibwe. You can take Ojibwe as a class and CMU, and the tribe is honored and kept alive in a way by people even knowing about them. I think it’s a good fit. On the other hand, I can’t believe people so adamantly stuck with The Braves and The Indians as baseball teams. Or the football team The Redskins. Just…gross.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. An author I keep thinking I “Must” read, too, and then not doing so. Not sure I’m up for another trilogy at the moment (have you SEEN my TBR??) but I’ll get to her one day …

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