It is impossible to read a novel by local novelist Louise Erdrich only once, and her recent book, The Plague of Doves—winner of the 2009 Minnesota Book Award for best novel—is no exception. Erdrich’s writing is circular. When you reach the end you realize that it continues again at the beginning.
The Harper Perennial edition of the book ($14.99) helpfully compiles interviews with Erdrich. In an interview with Amy Goodman from Democracy Now, Erdrich said the novel stems from a number of historical incidents, including a lynching incident that happened in 1897 in which a number of Native American men were hanged, including a 13-year-old boy. Erdrich said that the incident would not leave her thoughts: “I wrote around it for many years and put together differing stories.”
Writing in her usual style featuring multiple narrators, Erdrich explores the incident from two sides: the historical background beforehand and the ramifications afterward. She writes with a stunning sense of place, with rich characters that are tied to the land and to one another in unexpected ways.
When reading the book, it’s useful to keep notes of the family trees, some of which you won’t be able to figure out until the end, or after a second reading. French settlers, love-stricken youth, cult leaders, and storytellers inhabit the world of a North Dakota community. Throughout the generations, French, German, and Ojibwe people exist together, sometimes in violence, sometimes saving each other’s lives, sometimes intermarrying each other until the past reaches the present and families and enemies together live in shared history. As Erdrich said in an interview with National Public Radio, “I’m trying to tell a story that goes back and forth through time, showing the influence of history on the passions and decisions of people who live in the present.”
There are times when the story seems to go on a tangent, with characters that are introduced halfway through the book. Just when you think that the novel has veered from the original story, you realize that the tangent is an essential piece of the mystery that surrounds the town of Pluto. Each layer of the story is richly told, with vibrant characters and dialogue that bring the moments and stories to life.
Erdrich is skilled at intermixing humor and sorrow, in depicting the horrors of racism and hate while at the same time not losing the sense of joy. Her multi-narrator approach aids in allowing the reader to see different side to the story, learning a bit more about the situations as we gain a different perspective.
So go pick up a copy of The Plague of Doves. Go ahead and read it twice. And when you’re done, if you don’t want to start reading other novels that Erdrich has written, I don’t know what is wrong with you.
Sheila Regan is a Minneapolis theater artist and freelance writer.
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