“Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.”
The Plague of Doves is the story of several generations of Native Americans and European Americans living in a small town called Pluto, North Dakota. The story opens at the beginning of the 20th century with someone slaughtering a white family on their farm. A group of four Native men were lynched for it. The narrative then shifts to 1960s and ’70s, where the descendants of those involved tell of their lives and their family histories. For the most part, they still live on the reservation or in Pluto, and their relationships with each other are much more complicated than would appear on the surface.
Like many great novels (including War and Peace, another great read!), this story contains some very soap-opera-like elements: tragic love affairs, unrequited love, betrayals, a cult, drug and alcohol abuse, squabbles over inheritances. Erdrich populates Pluto, past and present, with many interesting and well drawn characters. Those who seem like “good guys” often have blood on their hands (literally), and members of one’s own family can be by turns a rock to rely on and unstable/inconstant.
Several characters narrate this book and in doing so, reveal important pieces of the puzzle of what really happened on the farm. Evelina and Judge Coutts narrate most of the story. Evelina is a Native girl who learns her local and family history from the stories that her grandfather, Seraph Milk, aka Mooshum, tells her. He is a masterful storyteller and injects humor and fantasy into his stories, but as we learn, what a storyteller leaves out can be as important as what he puts into his story. Judge Coutts is a Native who eventually found his way to studying law and found his true love later in life. His tragic early love is alluded to in the story but its importance is revealed at the end. A couple of minor characters take turns as well, although “minor” is not a fair description, as every character has some importance to the tale. Erdrich’s characters are flawed, but the reader still feels an affection or at least a pity for them. They are human, not caricatures, and their struggles and passions are very real.
While the inhabitants of Pluto have complicated webs of interconnection, Erdrich does a great job of clearly revealing those connections and keeping the plot line clean. She also injects some wonderful humor into a story that involves so much tragedy. A funeral provides the setting for the funniest scene in the book (one of the funniest I’ve read in any book), and yet the story of the deceased is full of sorrow and loneliness.
Erdrich comes by her knowledge of Native ways and life in North Dakota through her own life experience. She is from Minnesota and has Native American and Euro roots. Her personal life has also had its share of tragedy — the death of a child, accusations of child abuse by one of her adopted sons against her and her spouse, divorce and then her ex’s suicide. Her other writings have also focused on Native Americans and North Dakota and have been nominated for several honors. The Plague of Doves was nominated for a Pulitzer in 2010 but lost to Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. While I enjoyed Egan’s book very much, if I had been on the Pulitzer committee, I’d have given the prize to Erdrich. It’s an excellent novel.