Review – The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

plague of doves “Her face, and my father’s face, were naked with love.  It wasn’t something that we talked about – love – and I was terrified of its expression from the lips of my parents.  But they allowed me this one clear look at it.  Their love blazed from them.  And then they left.  I think now that everything that was concentrated in that one look – their care in raising me, their patient lessons in every subject they knew how to teach, their wincing efforts to give me freedoms, their example of fortitude in work – allowed me to survive myself.” (page 222).

After reading Olive Kitteridge, I thought it was going to be difficult to find another book that entered my heart and lived there in the same way.  Surprisingly, it was instantaneous.  The Pulitzer Prize committee sure had their work cut out for them, that much is clear.  I still think they made the right decision, but it wouldn’t have been bad to have co-winners this year – I know I wouldn’t have complained.

What Olive Kitteridge and The Plague of Doves have in common is a large cast of characters that are connected by one thing.  In the case of OK it was Olive herself, in The Plague of Doves it was a mysterious murder that occurred in the early 1900s of an entire family.  The actual killer is never found, though we have our suspicions.  Instead, the group of Native Americans who found the bodies, including a young boy, are lynched by the residents of Pluto, a small town that sits next to a reservation.  The murder of the family and the subsequent murder of the Native Americans haunts the characters of this novel in one way or another and its presence is felt 70 years later.  All the same, this is not a murder mystery.  Who actually killed the family is unimportant in the end; instead, the focus is the consequences, the guilt that can be felt by an entire community and the way history can infect the present.

There are four narrators in this story, Evelina, Marn Wolde, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, and finally, Doctor Cordelia Lochren.  Their voices are strong and their stories poignant. The Plague of Doves is a masterpiece of multiple narrators.  Recently it seems every story I’ve read has had multiple narrators, and few have done it successfully.  Certainly some better than others, but none as seamlessly as Erdrich.  At first, I was concerned that the judge’s voice was going to fall into this category, certain that Erdrich’s skill is in her women narrators, not the males (a small complaint I had with Love Medicine).  However, with his second section of narration, I was fully convinced by his voice and his role in the story.

If I had one complaint, rather one reason why this one did not win the Pulitzer and OK did, it’s because the arch of the story is not perfect.  Something is lost along the way, the importance of it all, of all the connections made.  But this is a small complaint and possibly one that would go away on another reread.  It is definitely a novel that deserves that.  It is still an achingly poignant novel that I highly recommend.

This is a beautiful story.  Erdrich is an unbelievably talented writer – her prose makes you want to read out loud and gives you chills.  She writes about love, both physical and emotional, with such beauty and feeling.  There are touches of magic and the fantastic, but this a novel about humanity and history, and most of all, love.   Here are some favorite passages:

Evelina’s first passage, after her first kiss:

I kissed Corwin Peace.  Our kiss was hard, passionate, strangely mature.  Afterward, I walked home alone.  I walked very slowly.  Halfway there, I stopped and stared at a piece of the sidewalk I’d crossed a thousand times and knew intimately.  There was a crack in it – deep, long, jagged, and dark.   It was the day when the huge old cottonwood trees shed cotton.  It was filled with falling down and the ditch grass and gutters were plump with a snow of light.  I had expected to feel joy but instead felt a confusion of sorrow, or maybe fear, for it seemed that my life was a hungry story and I its source, and with this kiss I had now begun to deliver myself into the words.

Marn’s passage, you’ll see the recurring theme of words:

Outdoors, the night is still, just the sound of black crickets sawing in the cracks of the foundation, just the thin tangle of windbreaks and the dew forming and collecting on the powder-dry earth.  I have been with Billy three years and I have spoken an unearthly language.  I have spoken directly in the power, to spirit….  I feel so old, so captured by life already.  As we lay together in the dark, the yard lights off to save on the electric bills, as the moonless night covers us all, I feel something else, too.  Half-awake and drifting, I feel the stark bird that nests in the tree of the Holy Ghost descend and hover.

I open my mouth to call Billy’s name, but nothing.  The wings flutter lower, scored white, and the down of its breast crackles faintly as the sparks jump between us.  The bird flattens its wings across my breast, brushing my nipples.  Then it presses itself into me, heated and full.  Its wings are spread inside of me and I am filled with fluttering words I cannot yet pronounce or decipher.  Some other voice is speaking now, a constant murmur in my head.  Something foreign that I will hide from Billy until I understand its power.  I’ll hide it from everyone, I think, because it’s rich and disturbing and something about it reminds me of my uncle and I wonder if his rage is catching.

Marn again, on snake charming:

You will get bit, she told me, but you will live through it in the power. She gave me two of her serpents, one a six-foot diamondback, the other a northern copperhead with red skin and hourglass markings.  They have judgment in them, she said.  And they have love.

So judge me, I said when I held the snakes for the first time, take me, and they did.  I found my belief.  I knew from the first time that this was my way of getting close to spirit.  Their cool dry bodies moved on me, skimmed over me, indifferent, curious, flickering, heavy, showing the mercy of spirit, loving me, sending a blood tide of power through me.  I could set myself loose when I held the snakes.  I became cold in my depth while my skin bloomed warm, calming them, and also I used pictures.  I gave them the lovely heat, the flat rocks, the black rocks, the steady beating of the sun.

93% – a poignant story about humanity and power of history over our present

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7 thoughts on “Review – The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich

  1. I’ve been intrigued by this book for a while – I picked it up the last time I was at the used bookstore, but it was too pricey for me to actually purchase, so I put it back. Having read your review (and the excerpts) I REALLY want to read it now! I hope a cheap copy turns up soon!

  2. I love those passages so much I want to order this book right now. I can’t believe I’ve never read Erdrich before. Keep the awesome reviews coming 😀

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