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Monday, March 02, 2009

The Plague of Doves

The Plague of Doves is the story of little Pluto, North Dakota, an isolated community with a mixed population of reservation Indians and descendants of the whites who founded the town. Louise Erdrich, through the interconnected first person narratives of various characters, builds layer after layer of Pluto’s history. The stories, sometimes told in the present and other times in flashbacks, all steadily add details to Pluto’s defining moment and contribute to the book’s surprise ending.

At the core of Pluto’s history is the horrific slaughter of a farm family just outside town that leaves only one survivor, an infant still in her crib when she is found by four Indians passing through the area. The suffering of the family’s milk cows and the plight of the child touch the group of passing Indians but they instinctively recognize the danger of becoming linked in any way to the murders of a white family. So, after milking the cows and caring for the baby, they use an anonymous note to notify the sheriff of the crime.

As things too often happen, though, their good deed does not go unpunished. Within days, a group of prominent white citizens, despite the sheriff’s efforts to stop them, identifies the formerly anonymous Indians and hangs all four (two men and two boys) from a tree on the outskirts of town. One of the boys, Mooshum Milk, manages to survive the lynching, resume his life in the community, and eventually raise a family of his own.

Mooshum has reached old age and enjoys telling his stories to his grandson and granddaughter. It is when he finally tells them the story of the murders and his near-lynching, complete with the names of those involved on both sides, that Evelina Harp, his granddaughter, begins to realize that life in Pluto is much more complicated than she ever imagined it to be.

Most often through Evelina’s eyes, but with added first-person narratives from several of the book’s key characters, the reader learns what happened in Pluto during the decades following the murders. As the years go by, intermarriage between the vigilante families and Indian families, and the deaths of most of the principles involved, mute the horror of what happened. Generations come and go, each less and less aware of the history shared with neighbors, and bloodlines become so blurred that most of the families descended from both the victims and the perpetrators of the crimes that marred Pluto’s early history hardly realize it.

As each narrator adds another layer to the story, readers will find it impossible to keep up with the various family relationships in The Plague of Doves - and Erdrich does not make it any easier to keep relationships straight by placing one of those elaborate family trees at the front of the book that have become so common. Rather, a fuzzy understanding of family relationships puts the reader on par with most Pluto residents who themselves barely comprehend the ties linking so many of them. That vagueness illustrates how the murders, tragic as they were, could have been absorbed by the townspeople to such a degree that the community thrives for decades despite a crime that should have destroyed it early on.

The Plague of Doves is a big, complicated family saga that is filled with lots of quirky humor despite the tragedy from which the story springs. Fans of Louise Erdrich know exactly what to expect, and this one will not disappoint them.

Rated at: 5.0

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