How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?
Louise Erdrich’s A Plague of Doves tells the story of residents in the tiny town of Pluto, North Dakota, on the edge of the Ojibwe reservation. The town and the reservation are fictional, but Erdrich, the daughter of a man of German descent and a Chippewa woman of Ojibwe and French blood, draws upon her own background to paint a rich picture of life in a small northern American town where descendants of immigrants and native people still feel uneasy with each other. The discomfort is even more confusing for those like Evelina Harp, whose veins are filled with the blood of both natives and colonizers.
All of this unease is exacerbated by a crime, or rather a double crime, that occurred in 1911, more than seventy years before the novel ends. The Lochren family was brutally murdered, shot to death at their farm. Only the baby, Cordelia, survived, found by a group of native men who happened to stumble on the gruesome scene. When the Lochren’s neighbors find out about the role the men played in saving the child, their prejudice finds suspicion in the great act of kindness. The native men are hunted down and killed, except for Mooshum, Evelina’s grandfather. Meanwhile, the murderer lives a long life, barely keeping his terrible secret. He would not have kept it all if the immigrant community had not allowed itself moral blindness rather than pursue the guilty within its own ranks.
What happens when you let an unsatisfactory present go on long enough? It becomes your entire history.
Three, and in one case four, generations of the major players are interwoven in the heartbreaking story of a dying community. By the end of the novel, the retired Dr. Cordelia Lochren is alone, unable to reconcile her feelings for native people, especially her lover, with the lies she was fed as a child. Mooshum is an ancient alcoholic, reliving the failures of his youth through painful memories that loom larger than his own life. The Peace family, descended from a man who could not leave a child to starve and was killed for his decency, show a lack of decency and control that lands them in peril deeper than their murdered ancestor. Evelina and the granddaughter of the murderer work side by side at the local diner, barely making enough to get by, never quite connecting the dots that link their patriarchs together. Cordelia alone knows the secret, which she reveals to us quite simply in the last few pages of the novel. It is actually fairly obvious, but obscured by the structure of the community itself, which is built on institutionalized racism. Even our own eyes do not want to see the truth.
Tragically tender and human, Erdrich’s prose is constantly running the gamut from crude humor to profound truth, which, she reminds us, are not mutually exclusive. I found myself identifying with the emotions the characters present and getting caught up in their feelings. Jumping from one narrative voice to another and traipsing back and forth over the decades, we come to know the residents of Pluto in their heroic moments and their feebleness, in their cruelty and their silliness, and we mourn the decline of a community haunted and held together by its ghosts.
Erdrich does not leave her community or us without hope. The hope comes, strangely and beautifully, from music, which presents itself as supernatural force, somehow not quite bound by time and place. There is an old violin that has a marvelous part to play, found floating in a canoe, the instigator and only survivor of a fatal rivalry between brothers. It is this instrument that will change the outcome of the novel, saving a young guilty man’s life and ending that of an old guilty one. Then, its debt repaid, it will be shattered.
The music was more than music- at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we’d lived through and didn’t want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprisingly pleasures. No, we can’t live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware.