Only in the years following my French Catholic grandmother’s death was it revealed to me that there is no such thing as “magical realism.” There are, instead, culturally specific experiences of the real which, when rendered in fiction, produce different results. Raised in an essentially Protestant setting, I had in youth absorbed, unawares, an essentially Protestant understanding of the world: one that strives for a rational grasp of events, one that espouses clarity, directness, and mastery. In fiction, this leads to largely linear narrative, in which the lines between cause and effect can be clearly traced, and in which, in spite of welcome complexity, there remains an underlying certainty of limits, boundaries, and order.
When my grandmother died, she was eating an orange madeleine of a perfectly ordinary store-bought sort. She had taken only a single bite of the biscuit when she was stricken by what was described later only as “one of her malaises“—a mysterious distress the source and effects of which were never entirely explained—and died.
This in itself was not the significant fact. The significant fact—or object, rather—was the madeleine itself, in which my grandmother’s tooth marks were forever visible, a biscuit thenceforth imbued with sacred familial importance and stored, without explanation or comment, in a clear glass jar with a domed lid, in the front of the biscuit cupboard in the kitchen, for the seven years that followed: a sanctified relic.
There is, in the biscuit, a great story, and no story at all. There is (or was for me) considerable comedy. But there lay, behind its continued preservation, a worldview unlike that to which I had been largely accustomed. Mystery, silence, downright oddity, the overdetermined symbolism of the artifact, of its presence, of its placement —this, I realized then, represented an alternative approach, a different way of experiencing, and hence of fictionalizing, the world.
Louise Erdrich’s fiction emanates from a world recognizable, even familiar, to me through my grandmother’s madeleine. Erdrich’s novels are marked not only by their lucid, lyrical prose (she is a fine stylist, and her sentences are a joy to read), but also by the digressive complexity of their unfolding, by their refusal to relinquish the mystery, the oddity, and the idiosyncratic significance of even apparently minor objects and happenings. Her characters inhabit a world in which, through storytelling, myth is made not only of grand tragedy—a family murder and an unjustified lynching, for example, in The Plague of Doves—but also of an eleven-year-old’s infatuation, or of a courting couple’s fishing date. No strand is too slight, or proves too colorless, to leave out of the grand tapestry.
Like Erdrich’s celebrated tetralogy (Love Medicine, The Beet Queen, Tracks, and The Bingo Palace), The Plague of Doves is about families on and around a fictional North Dakota Native American reservation. (The novel is not linked, by character or setting, to her earlier works.) In this case, the novel’s central narrators are mixed-blood Ojibwe and white, and both their contemporary lives and their family histories reveal the profoundly entwined and murky histories of race relations. As one of them, Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, observes, “Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood.” These are connections that turn simple understandings of good and evil upon their heads, and ultimately imbue every character with a history of violence and misunderstanding.
The book’s opening section belongs to Evelina Harp, a woman who recounts her childhood years as a middle-class mixed-blood girl: “I probably did not fully realize or appreciate our family’s relative comfort on the reservation,” she notes, as the Harp children live in Bureau of Indian Affairs housing and enjoy the luxury of books and education. But alongside these privileges, Evelina gains access, too, to a trove of family stories, through the voice of her joke-filled, whisky-drinking Ojibwe grandfather, Seraph Milk, known as Mooshum; and in so doing, she shoulders a legacy at once rich and horrifying.
Mooshum’s storytelling is at the core of Evelina’s account: her own remembered life, told with considerable verve and humor, is a passionate history—first of her infatuation with a schoolmate named Corwin Peace (“we attended a Roman Catholic grade school in the mid-1960s and boys and girls known to be in love hardly talked to one another and never touched”); and subsequently of her transfer of affection to their teacher, a nun named Sister Mary Anita and nicknamed “Godzilla” because of her ferocious looks: “Outlined in a stiff white frame of starched linen, Sister’s eyes, nose, and mouth leapt out, a mask from a dream, a great raw-boned jackal’s muzzle.” Once grown up and in college, Evelina goes to work in a mental hospital, where she again, and perilously, falls in love, this time with a patient; it is an event that leads to—or exposes—a complete disintegration of her closely held sense of self.
Juxtaposed with these reminiscences are the grandiose, lyrical flights of Mooshum’s remembered youth. He is a raconteur par excellence— “Mooshum was our favorite indoor entertainment, next to the television” —and his assured presentation of his own history as one of near-biblical significance is but a synecdoche for the Harp family’s understanding of itself. Mooshum’s first encounter with Evelina’s grandmother, Junesse, takes place during the plague of doves which gives the novel its title, and is recounted thus:
The two children in white clothes melted into the wall of birds. Their robes were soon to become as dark as the soil, and so they blended into the earth as they made their way along the edges of fields, through open country, to where the farmable land stopped and the ground split open and the beautifully abraded knobs and canyons of the badlands began…. For the first few days they were able to live on the roasted meat of doves. It was too early for there to be much else to gather in the way of food, but they stole bird’s eggs and scratched up weeds. They snared rabbits and begged what they could from isolated homesteads.
The meeting of Mooshum and Junesse, is, then, to the child Evelina—and consequently, to us—as spectacular and fantastical as any fairy tale. It is, like my grandmother’s madeleine, a potentially ordinary event granted momentous significance. Moreover, from it stems a multigenerational myth. Evelina explains:
Our family has maintained something of an historical reputation for deathless romantic encounters…. This current of drama holds together the generations, I think, and my brother and I listened to Mooshum not only from suspense but for instructions on how to behave when our moment of recognition, or perhaps our romantic trial, should arrive.
It is an understanding that freights her own first kiss, with Corwin Peace, with symbolism:
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.
This notion that a life unfolds in service to a greater narrative animates many of the novel’s characters, but above all Mooshum in his telling of the most fearful story of all:
It wasn’t like he was talking to us…or even using his usual storytelling voice. He wasn’t drawing us in, or gesturing. This was different. Now it was like he was stuck in some way, on some track, like he couldn’t stop the story from forcing its way out. This was the one time he told the story whole.
The story in question, the novel’s dark heart, is that of the murder of an entire white family, the Lochrens, on their farm in 1911; and of the discovery of their bodies, along with one surviving infant girl, by a group of four Native Americans, including the young man Mooshum. With him are his ne’er-do-well friend Cuthbert Peace, an old man, Asiginak, and Asiginak’s orphaned nephew, a deeply religious boy known as Holy Track, because of the crosses nailed to the soles of his boots by his dying mother.
As a result of their discovery, the four are accused of the crime, and are brutally lynched by a mob of white men from Pluto, the town adjoining the reservation. Only Mooshum survives; but in his telling, he inhabits the mind of young Holy Track in his death throes:
He slowly choked as he kicked air and spun. He heard it when Cuthbert, then his uncle, stopped singing and gurgling. Behind his shut eyes, he was seized by black fear, until he heard his mother say, Open your eyes, and he stared into the dusty blue. Then it was better. The little wisps of clouds, way up high, had resolved into wings, and they swept across the sky now, faster and faster.
This shift of point of view, logically inexplicable, might, in a different voice, ring false, or awkwardly; but in the world that Mooshum inhabits—along with his granddaughter and Judge Coutts, who performs a similar sleight of hand in telling his own grandfather’s story, and also that of John Wildstrand, the sometime husband of Neve Harp, Evelina’s aunt—it seems not presumptuous, but inevitable: the storytellers exist in the service of their stories.
For Evelina, “the story Mooshum told us had its repercussions—the first being that I could not look at anyone in quite the same way anymore.” Her initial explanation of why Mooshum was spared is provided by her mother, Clemence, who reminds her that her grandmother, Junesse, was the daughter of Eugene Wildstrand, and that the Wildstrands were part of the lynching mob. Her affection for Sister Mary Anita is complicated by the knowledge that the nun is a Buckendorf, and that the Buckendorf clan was also party to the crime. And of course, Corwin Peace is the great-nephew of Cuthbert. As Judge Coutts says, “nothing is not connected here by blood.”
The effects of this long-ago incident pervade the novel; but The Plague of Doves is not a single, simple story. (It is worth noting that many portions of the book were originally published as short stories, primarily in The New Yorker: each section stands on its own as a consistent whole; and the triumph of the novel is the way in which Erdrich has contrived to make their unfolding as a cohesive novel seem wholly organic.) Most, like Evelina’s own, are stories of passion, of love and its consequences.
Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, for example, is at pains to relate his love for Geraldine Milk, the sister of Clemence, Evelina’s mother: “The moment I passed Geraldine Milk in the narrow hallway of the tribal offices, I decided I had to marry her.” Eventually, too, he will tell the story of his first, prolonged, and scandalous love affair, the passion that shaped and defined him. But Coutts is diverted by the history of his grandfather Joseph J. Coutts’s pioneering expedition from Minnesota to found the town of Pluto, in the company of two métis trackers, Henri and Lafayette Peace, and a tribe of Germans named Buckendorf, among others.
Their tale is as dramatic and rife with significance as any told by Mooshum, involving perilous winter storms and near death from starvation. Through it all, the Peace brothers stand as saviors, as those whose competence and faith may, if anything can, guarantee survival:
They loved their fiddle, and called her their sweetheart, their lover. But on Sundays, she was the Virgin Mary to the bois brûlés; they played only sacred music. And no matter what the circumstances, they always fished out their rosaries, first thing in the morning, and muttered as they moved their fingers along the beads.
The relationship of the Native Americans in this novel to the Catholic Church is as fraught and intense as is their relationship to the white population off-reservation. Although their other brother was a Catholic priest, Mooshum and his brother Shamengwa spend their afternoons in later life taunting the local clergyman, a pompous fool named Father Cassidy. “Nothing made them happier than the chance to fling history into the face of a member of the hated cloth.” (Mooshum, a devotee of the nineteenth-century métis rebel leader Louis Riel, provides Evelina’s father with a marvelously comical yet astute explanation for the impossibility of hell: “Riel the mystic had announced that hell did not last forever, nor was it even very hot…. ‘If hell was hot enough to eat the flesh, there would be no flesh left to suffer,’ said Mooshum. ‘And if hell was meant to burn the soul, which is invisible, it would have to be imaginary fire, the flames of which you cannot feel.’”) In defiance of Cassidy’s proselytizing, Mooshum threatens to return to his tribal religion; and makes good on the threat.
Henri and Lafayette Peace may have been the most devout Catholics in the expedition that founded Pluto; but their descendant Billy Peace (Corwin’s uncle) is a man possessed of a different religious fervor, an evangelical who founds his own sect and thrives on his power as a cult leader. The story of his rise and fall is told by his wife, Marn Wolde, a white girl from Pluto who runs off with him at the age of sixteen, only to find herself a near slave to the peculiar demands of Billy’s cult: “As one month and another month goes on, my husband…hardly sleeps. Billy seems to whirl from one thing to the next, his energy blooming, enormous, unflagging. The food he eats!” And then: “Another month passes and Billy’s chins double so he wears a thick flesh collar. We make love every night, but I am embarrassed. He is so loud, so ecstatic. I am tossed side to side on top of him, as if I am riding a bull whale. I make him wear a sleeveless undershirt so I can hold onto the shoulder straps like handles.” And finally: “I don’t know who I married anymore. It’s like he’s supernatural. He is horribly tireless.”
This horrifying transformation of Billy Peace into an all-consuming man of God is but a portion of his history: Judge Coutts, in telling John Wildstrand’s peculiar story, reveals another, earlier episode, in which the young Billy kidnaps Wildstrand’s wife at Wildstrand’s bidding. Wildstrand’s wife, of course, is Neve Harp, Evelina’s aunt. She, like many of Erdrich’s minor characters, is drawn with a Dickensian efficiency, a vigor and accuracy that require little further development: Neve is “an annoying aunt of ours, a Pluto lady who called herself the town historian…. She was what people called ‘fixy,’ always made-up and overdressed.” Evelina’s Uncle Whitey is presented in a similarly brisk thumbnail sketch: “He was a big, square man with an Indian Elvis face and a springy pompadour that he slicked back with hair oil out of a bright purple bottle.” Or again, Evelina describes Marn Wolde’s rival for her husband Billy Peace’s attentions, a woman named Bliss:
Her skin was thick and pitted with old acne scars and her eyes and lips were swollen, red as if from weeping or a bad cold. Her coxcomb of tough, spiky hair shivered as she launched into a torrent of accusation.
This gift for what Forster described as “flat characters” is born of Erdrich’s acute, comic eye for detail, a gift superbly in evidence throughout the book. Marn Wolde, too, speaks of Bliss: “She rose now, a larded green warrior in her sweat suit and army jacket.” She describes her uncle Warren as someone “who would stare and stare at you like he was watching your blood move and your food digest. Warren’s face was a chopping block, and his long arms hung heavy. He flew into disorderly rages and went missing, for days sometimes.” Mooshum relates that Cuthbert Peace, when dragged by the lynchers behind a horse, “looked like a big caterpillar coated with gray dust.” In each instance, it is Erdrich’s diction that gives the image its precision and intense life: “larded,” “disorderly,” “caterpillar”— each of these words surprises, and yet is utterly apt in its context.
This liveliness in Erdrich’s rendering justifies all but her most outlandish digressions. There are, in this marvelous novel, instances where even the tight-knit community and its endless echoes cannot quite explain events. When Judge Coutts and Geraldine go fishing and dredge up a snapping turtle upon whose shell Geraldine and her first love had, years before, carved their initials, it is hard to believe that the lake’s depths are as small and entwined as the society above it. When Mooshum’s violin-playing brother Shamengwa is told, in a dream, to wait by the lakeshore, only to have a precious violin appear, unaccompanied, in a canoe; and, moreover, when it is explained that the violin had belonged to none other than the Peace brothers, and that it had been twenty years afloat, this, too, is tough to credit. Finally, when it is revealed late in the novel that Evelina’s great-uncle Octave’s “world-class” stamp collection was so extraordinary that his inability to procure a particular “disaster letter” destroyed his life (“These pieces of mail, marked by experience, took their value from the gravity of their condition. They were water stained, tattered, even bloodied…. Such damage was part of their allure”), it is impossible not to feel that the weight of symbolism has been, in this anecdote, authorially imposed.
These are but cavils, however, in so fine and engaging a novel. There is a symphonic achievement in Erdrich’s capacity to bring so many disparate stories to life, and to have their thematic echoes overlap in such compelling harmony. Judge Antone Bazil Coutts reflects, early on:
As I look at the town [Pluto] now, dwindling without grace, I think how strange that lives were lost in its formation. It is the same with all desperate enterprises that involve boundaries we place upon the earth. By drawing a line and defending it, we seem to think we have mastered something. What? The earth swallows and absorbs even those who manage to form a country, a reservation.
This observation emanates from an understanding of the world in which destiny, struggle, and ultimate futility are not at odds; it is an understanding, too, in which the stories that we tell are as important as our acts. Indeed, in some measure they are, or become, our acts. As Evelina puts it, “When we are young, the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape.” It is, of course, an ideal understanding for a novelist, as much as for her characters.