By Donna Seaman
It is no exaggeration to say that since "Love Medicine" appeared in 1984, Louise Erdrich has been writing one long novel in installments. In her tumultuous saga of North Dakota, Erdrich portrays families burdened with secrets and roiled by "conflicting passions," that, like her own, are of mixed Ojibwa, French and German descent. In this parallel world, Erdrich's obsessed, rebellious, hilarious and doomed characters re-enact the trials and traumas that, generation by generation, forged the complex reality of one vital piece of the American puzzle.
"Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood," Judge Antone Bazil Coutts observes in Erdrich's new novel, "The Plague of Doves." But it is blood shed that sets things in motion—namely, the brutal and inexplicable 1911 killing of a white farm family, followed by the lynching of two innocent Indian men and a boy. Coutts, perhaps the most reliable narrator in the 11th novel in Erdrich's river of stories, ponders the snarled bloodlines of Pluto, N.D., and the curious decision to name this outpost after the god of the underworld.
But of course, this name makes perfect sense, seeing as how, in Erdrich Country, the dead are never past, to riff on the oft-quoted line by William Faulkner (a writer Erdrich is frequently compared to): "The past is never dead. It's not even past." Here the dead remain alive in memory and story as their faces and gestures reappear in their descendants, who carry forward grave debts of repentance, forgiveness and gratitude.
Things wouldn't be quite so knotty among the Harp, Coutts, Peace, Wildstrain, Buckendorf and Wolde clans if it wasn't for what Evelina Harp identifies as her family's "historical reputation for deathless romantic encounters," and what Antone views as an inherited trait of the Coutts men: "Losing women." Whatever the reasons, love gone catastrophically wrong is at the root of most of Pluto's follies, scandals and crimes.
Cardinal among the conflagrations of desire that stoke her family lore is the story of how Evelina's grandfather, Mooshum, a consummate storyteller, met the love of his life. The year is 1896 and a plague of doves (hence the novel's alluringly paradoxical titles) is devouring the struggling community's crops. Mooshum's older brother, "one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood," whom Mooshum drolly observes had saved him "from a life of excessive freedom," gathers everyone in the fields to try to scare away the birds, thus bringing young Mooshum and Junesse together. The love-struck children promptly run away together, escaping oppressive lives and racking up tall-tale adventures.
In assessing the veracity of Mooshum's enchanting and amusing story, Evelina avers, "if there was embellishment, it only had to do with facts." Such as the minor detail that the doves Mooshum describes with such intensity "were surely the passenger pigeons of legend and truth, whose numbers were such that nobody thought they could possibly ever be wiped from the earth."
These are the keys to the magic of Erdrich's fiction: a love of stories, a mix of legend and truth, and flinty humor. Mooshum is the novel's foundational storyteller, but the novel's four designated narrators also tell stand-alone tales. So while there is a primary story line here––the gradual unveiling of the hidden truth and repercussions of those horrible murders––the novel consists of powerful set pieces strung together like beads.
Take "Town Fever," a riveting story of a foolhardy, dead-of-winter land-grab expedition involving wretched cold, hunger, sickness, death and heroics. Or the entrancing story of Mooshum's brother, Shamengwa, and his miraculous fiddle. Mooshum is such a mesmerizing storyteller, young Evelina and her brother find him as entertaining as the TV they're rarely allowed to watch. Stories are intrinsic to our survival, Erdrich suggests, and their power is not to be taken lightly. They are greater than their tellers, transcending time, flesh and blood.
The stories that unfurl in the novel's present are often wickedly funny, such as the scenes in which Mooshum and Shamengwa poke fun at the new priest, the ridiculously fastidious, high-strung, tippling Father Cassidy. Evelina's struggles with her "conflicting passions" have a high satiric quotient despite their serious side, beginning with her schoolgirl crush on a kind, homely, supremely athletic (habit and all) baseball-playing nun, and leading to an obsession with Anais Nin and an LSD-triggered breakdown.
Lust and love are as potent and inevitable as blizzards and droughts, but Pluto is also shaken to its rocky depths by the Holy Spirit. Religious figures and the uneasy alliance between traditional Ojibwa beliefs and missionary-delivered Catholicism underlie many dilemmas and quests for, if not salvation, at least liberation. Book by book, Erdrich has focused with increasing acuity on just what it means to be born of two worlds considered oppositional, that of people native to this land and that of those who came from Europe seeking freedom and prosperity. Here she alludes to Louis Riel, a real 19th Century Canadian spiritual and political leader who stood up for the Métis nation, that is, people of mixed blood. His picture hangs on the wall in Evelina's house beside that of John F. Kennedy and Pope John XXIII.
While Riel was "the moody prophet of the new mixed-blood Catholicism," the imaginary Billy Peace is a priestly abomination. Marn Wolde tells the over-the-top story of her cult-leader husband with all the fire-and-brimstone vehemence it deserves. Only 16 when she meets the "newly saved" Billy, Marn is swept up in the passion of his fervent evangelical preaching. Erdrich infuses her false prophet with shades of Billy Sunday by way of Sinclair Lewis' Elmer Gantry, exhibiting her gifts for chicanery, the macabre and the supernatural in a raging tale of hijacked religion and farmland cultism.
Towering in his tirades, diabolical in his profitable scams, tyrannical in his rule over the weak and lost who flock to him, and malevolently erotic, Billy is so monstrous he survives a lightning strike in one sublimely lurid scene, and even grows larger and stronger, "swollen with unearthly power." But Marn the patient snake handler has her own strange and terrible abilities, and as life with Billy grows more menacing, she plots her escape with her two children.
Clues to the truth about the long-ago murders are everywhere, and once all becomes clear, the reader will want to turn right back to Page 1 and read the novel again with newly opened eyes. The great web that connects Erdrich's vivid characters is so subtly drawn, and so surprising in its configuration, the novel, like every good story, yields new insights and surprises with each immersion.
But as finely detailed as this richly patterned drama of the past's imprint on the present is, Erdrich also pulls back to allow us to see the North Dakota landscape as a vast living stage on which human beings––small, vulnerable creatures beset by dreams and delusions––strut and grovel. Spanning the sacred and the profane, the tragic and the comedic, the novel maps the commonality of feelings and desire that unite the human family, and tracks the emergence of unique individuals from the great tangle of blood and tradition.
Questions of identity and association shape every aspect of our lives, and the more fluid our sense of self and of belonging, the more fair and generous our society becomes. In her sustained artistic exploration of the complex bounty of a mixed heritage through her portrayals of men and women who, by their very existence prove false the perception of rigid boundaries separating people by race, ethnicity or faith, Erdrich tells galvanizing tales of the transcendence of the imagination, compassion and love; stories of unity and hope.
The Plague of DovesBy Louise ErdrichHarperCollins, 314 pages, $25.95Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun