May 2008

A town connected by a painful past

By Louise Erdrich
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Louise Erdrich's 13th mesmerizing and generations-spanning tale, A Plague of Doves, takes place in the small, now-dying town of Pluto, North Dakota—a town founded by whites in the late 1800s on the very edge of an Ojibwe Indian reservation, in the hope of profiting from the soon-to-be-built railroad line. There Evelina Harp, a young woman of mixed heritage, hears from her grandfather Mooshum a haunting story—a story kept from her for more than 50 years.

That story is Mooshum's recollection of the gruesome murder, in 1911, of one of Pluto's white families, and the hanging shortly thereafter of three innocent Indians cast as the perpetrators, despite ample evidence to the contrary. Evelina subsequently becomes obsessed with lineage, gradually tracing the blood history of all the participants—those murdered, the Native American scapegoats and the lynching party—through their remaining relatives in "elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles." Erdrich reveals these webs of relationships gradually, by means of chapters moving back and forth in time, each devoted to one of the descendants. These include Evelina herself, whose grandfather escaped the lynching but still feels guilt for the role he played that day; the judge who marries Evelina's aunt; Pluto's female doctor who, as an infant, was the only one in her family to survive that long-ago massacre; the teaching nun descended from brothers in the lynching mob—each is irrevocably tied to the others in never-ending threads of history.

Enriching this character-driven plot are exquisitely drawn scenes, like the mass of late-19th-century parishioners wildly dancing through the cornfields, hoping to scare away the ravenous plague of doves destroying their crop; a young nun's swirling habit as she rounds the bases at recess; and two of Pluto's oldest survivors taking their daily walk around the town perimeter, until their footsteps "wear [our] orbit into the earth." As Erdrich traces the rippling repercussions of that fateful day, her characters' lives leave an indelible trace on her readers.


Deborah Donovan writes from La Veta, Colorado.

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The Plague of Doves

The Plague of Doves

By Louise Erdrich
ISBN 9780060515126

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