72 pages 2 hours read

Louise Erdrich

The Plague Of Doves

Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2008

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Summary and Study Guide

Overview

Published in 2009, The Plague of Doves is a work of fiction written by author Louise Erdrich, an enrolled member of the Ojibwe people. The novel was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award. The novel concerns the ramifications of the horrific murder of the Lochren family, during which five family members were slaughtered and only the infant girl survived. This massacre resulted in the unjust lynching of a group of Native American men, complicating the tense relationships between the Native American and white populations in western North Dakota. The novel works as a murder mystery: The characters must unravel the complex relationships between a thriving Native American manufacturing reservation and the three dying farming towns that border it in order to ascertain the identity of the murderer. The novel interrogates the historical trauma of racism while also depicting the way in which the interactions and often marriages between the Native American and white populations complicate the consequences of these two groups’ persistent tension.

Plot Summary

The novel is set in the 1960s, decades after the murder, although the history of the narrative jumps around significantly. Flashbacks convey much of the narrative, making everything seem like a memory. Prolonged anecdotes retold second- and third-hand recreate the location’s history, including the towns’ founding by white settlers, the accused Native Americans’ lynching, and myriad other crimes and natural disasters that seem to converge upon this auspicious stretch of land, such as the titular plague of doves. The author uses these flashbacks to eliminate the substantive difference between past and present, allowing for the trauma of the past to be rendered as vividly as that of the present. The author also frequently interrupts the flow of the narrative through these flashbacks, reflecting the trajectory of life as well as the nature of memories. The greater narrative memory, then, is inextricably linked to the land itself, which the author creates as a kind of character. The author then uses the flashbacks to suggest that the characters serve as carriers of specific memories within the greater geographic memory.

The efficacy of the narrative therefore relies upon this communal perspective, as the story is told through four different characters’ points of view. The novel is divided into eight sections. Evelina Harp, the granddaughter of the lynched Native American who survived, listens to her grandfather speak at length about the plague of doves as well as the lynching itself. Judge Antone Coutts, trained in both tribal and US law, retells the second section which concerns his grandfather’s failed expedition to the location that would eventually be Pluto. The murderer’s niece, Marn Wolde, tells the third section, which unravels her marriage to the local cult leader Billy Peace. The perspective shifts back to Evelina for the fourth section, which depicts the community’s violent response to Marn murdering her abusive husband. In the fifth section, Coutts discusses the violin that passes throughout the Native American community for generations and brings some form of grief but also healing to each person who holds it. In the sixth section, Evelina interrogates her own lesbianism and eventually suffers from a mental collapse, from which she emerges with a more concrete idea of her own identity. In the seventh section, Coutts uses his current relationship with Evelina’s aunt to depict his past failed relationship with Cordelia Lochren, the sole survivor of her family’s murder. In the eighth and final section, Cordelia herself retells the traumatic history of the dying town of Pluto and unveils the identity of her family’s murderer. The first section, told by Evelina, is by far the longest, and the sections grow shorter as the author unravels clues to the murder mystery; the pace quickens, increasing the narrative tension until Cordelia finally substantiates the reader’s suspicion of the murderer’s identity.

Much of the novel concerns the various characters’ inextricability from both each other and the land itself. Several of the characters responsible for the Native American men’s lynching end up having romantic engagements with their kin, creating a spider-web of love and death. Eros and Thanatos become increasingly linked as the story progresses, and the author often uses the language of death to speak of love and vice versa. This interchangeability of language as well as the interconnectivity of the characters creates a sense of circularity within the novel, which is mirrored by the book’s investigation of historical traumas. The characters cannot escape the grip of history and instead are predestined to answer for the actions of previous generations.

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