COVER REVIEW | FICTION

Crimes of the Heart

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Sunday, April 27, 2008

THE PLAGUE OF DOVES

By Louise Erdrich

HarperCollins | 314 pp. $25.95

"History works itself out in the living," says a character in Louise Erdrich's new novel, and, indeed, the history in The Plague of Doves is something of a workout. She's challenged us before with complex, interconnected stories about the Ojibwe people of North Dakota, but here she goes for broke, whirling out a vast, fractured narrative, teeming with characters -- ancestors, cousins, friends and enemies, all separated and rejoined again and again in uncanny ways over the years. Worried about losing track, I started drawing a genealogical chart after a few chapters, but it was futile: a tangle of names and squiggling lines. That bafflement is clearly an intentional effect of this wondrous novel; the sprawling cast whose history Erdrich works through becomes a living demonstration of the unfathomable repercussions of cruelty.

In the creepy, one-paragraph chapter that opens The Plague of Doves, a man murders five members of a white family in Pluto, N.D., near the Ojibwe reservation in 1911. The chronology of the stories that follow is radically jumbled, but the massacre in Pluto precipitates another one: When four hapless Indians come upon the dead family, they discover that a baby has been left alive in the house. Determined to save the child from abandonment but worried they'll be held responsible for the murders, they leave an anonymous note for the sheriff. Their plan backfires, though, and a gang of white men lynches the Indians in a heartbreaking scene that is among the most moving and mysterious in the novel.

These dual crimes hang over the town and the nearby reservation for decades, spreading through the population's DNA as relatives of the victims and the perpetrators work together, intermarry and teach each other's children. "Sorrow was a thing that each of them covered up according to their character," Erdrich writes. "Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood." As the town's economy slowly dies, the whites forget the gruesome incident, or pretend to; the Indians bear it like a festering, private wound; and the area's many biracial members worry over its unanswered questions. "Now that some of us have mixed in the spring of our existence both guilt and victim," one of them says, "there is no unraveling the rope."

At the center of all this complication is Evelina Harp, a passionate, endearing young woman, who, like Erdrich, is the daughter of an Indian mother and a white teacher on the reservation. We follow Eve from grade school to college, through crushes on her dangerous cousin, her gargoyle-like sixth-grade teacher and the writings of Anaïs Nin. Eve also has an unquenchable appetite for stories, particularly the captivating tales told by her grandfather, Mooshum. Fans of Erdrich's rich chronicle of the Ojibwe will notice with pleasure his resemblance to the old Indian Nanapush from Tracks (1988) and Four Souls (2004), though Mooshum is, ultimately, a more tragic character.

His intimate rendition of the murders and subsequent lynching permanently jars Eve's sense of her community. "I could not look at anyone in quite the same way anymore. I became obsessed with lineage," she says. "I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw out elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles." But that bewildering thicket of consequence and blame eventually wreaks havoc on Eve's mind, forcing her to reconsider just what kind of woman she is. "When we are young," she observes wisely, "the words are scattered all around us. As they are assembled by experience, so also are we, sentence by sentence, until the story takes shape."

Following the form Erdrich developed in her first novel, Love Medicine (1984), other narrators take over parts of this book, either shading events Eve understands only vaguely or adding whole new branches to the community's history. Some of these discontinuous episodes -- from the arrival of white settlers to the social problems of the 1970s -- relate tangentially to each other, but the connections among many parts of the novel are invisible until much later. We hear the story of 19th-century speculators launching out during winter to lay claim on this land, only to end up eating their shoes one frozen night. The tale of a dove infestation in 1896 -- which gives the novel its title -- reads like a Native American twist on Alfred Hitchcock, the lovely birds accumulating until they become grotesque. And decades later, a bank robbery leads to the bizarre rise of an apocalyptic cult.

What marks these stories -- some of which appeared in the New Yorker and the Atlantic -- is what has always set Erdrich apart and made her work seem miraculous: the jostling of pathos and comedy, tragedy and slapstick in a peculiar dance. As horrific as the crimes at the heart of this novel are, other sections remind us that Erdrich is a great comic writer. When Mooshum isn't leading Eve through the history of her family, he's daring the local Catholic priest to save him or pursuing alcohol and romance with dogged, hilarious determination. Some of the funniest moments take place during a funeral, and even the murders and lynchings that bleed so much heartache are heightened by incongruous notes of humor.

Despite its remoteness, the tiny town of Pluto begins to seem more and more like a microcosm of America and its troubled past. Judge Antone Coutts, a descendant of one of the original white settlers, notes that "the entire reservation is rife with conflicting passions. We can't seem to keep our hands off one another, it is true, and every attempt to foil our lusts through laws and religious dictums seems bound instead to excite transgression." In the end, the hatred and suspicion between Indians and whites are subsumed by their tangled history, the passage of time that bestows its own strange peace. Hovering over the entire novel is the image of those voracious doves, covering the ground, blanketing everything, consuming everything in a fluttering wave of white feathers.

"I am sentenced to keep watch over this small patch of earth," says one character, who could just as well be speaking for Erdrich herself, "to judge its miseries and tell its stories. That's who I am."

Sit down and listen carefully. ·

Ron Charles is a senior editor of Book World. He can be reached at charlesr@washpost.com.


© 2008 The Washington Post Company

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