Isn’t it the best when you stumble upon an amazing book you just can’t put down? That was my feeling when I read The Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich.
Like many of Erdrich’s previous works, The Plague of Doves is set in a small town. As many authors do, Erdrich set this novel in the place she grew up—a Native American reservation in North Dakota. With her knowledge of reservation life, Erdrich adds an even greater depth to this complex story. The fictional world she creates stays true to the realities of small-town life on the Great Plains, Native American Culture, and our tendency as human beings to keep secrets and make mistakes.
Like many postmodern novels, Erdrich’s work is told through multiple perspectives. Critics have compared her narrative style to William Faulkner, but I would say it’s more like William Faulkner meets Willa Cather because of Erdrich’s rich development of the culture and scenery of the Midwest/ Great Plains region.
In this novel in particular, Erdrich’s kaleidoscopic storyline takes the reader down many paths but still manages to make strong connections among the characters. The recurring storyline is about the hanging of Native American men who were blamed for a white family’s murders simply because of their race. The novel artfully comes back to the event giving multiple perspectives on a day that shaped the history of the families afterwards.
As the story of the murders unfolds, the reader is made more aware how complex ideas of “good” and “evil” truly are, and that there is no simple answer to who is responsible, especially in the next generation after the murders, when the children and grandchildren of both the hangmen and the victims are left to make sense of what happened in their family history. Erdrich pushes the boundaries of what it means to be racist and who is to blame for a hate crime. By the end of the novel, the families of the hangmen and the victims have become so intertwined that there is no distinguishing who’s who, or who’s to blame.
While the heart of the novel revolves around the hanging, the separate character narratives are constantly pushing the story outward. No one character exclusively dwells on the injustice of the past, but each person finds themself inexplicably still connected through it.
While Erdrich brings to life many colorful and complex characters in the novel, my personal favorite is Evelina. She starts out as a little girl listening to her grandfather’s stories and then develops her own identity and grapples with her self-discovery as a lesbian as she moves away from the reservation. Evelina most poignantly displays the moral struggles of a woman trying to make sense of her heritage, the complexitiy and layers of human relationships, and how she can be herself in a small, traditionalist town.
The Plague of Doves is, simply put, an amazing work of art. It was a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist novel for good reason—not only is it a beautifully crafted and compelling story, Erdrich manages to touch on those universal (and feminist) questions on how to make sense of morality, sexuality, love, race, gender, justice, and spirituality.
Have you read The Plague of Doves? What did you think?