Blood Relations

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…

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