Bound Together: Ancestry and Prejudice in Louis Erdrich’s The Plague of Doves

How much do the actions and thoughts of our ancestors shape our lives and limit our experience?

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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.

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The Old Violin, William Harnett, 1886

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.

 

Quote for Today: Sherri Mitchell

 

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When we listen to those stories, not only are we hearing tales of days gone by, we are also hearing the voices of all of those who lived before us. Those ancestors are not gone from our lives. They live in the stories, and they linger in our environments. They come to us in dreams and during ceremonies. They whisper to us in quiet moments and bring us comfort. One of my favorite stories is about a friend’s experience with the ancestors. She was doing repatriation work, which involves caring for the remains of an ancestor until they can be properly buried with their people. In this instance, the ancestor that she was caring for had been part of a gruesome display in a museum. During her time with him, she remained in prayer when he came to her and gave her a message. First, he thanked her for bringing him back home. Then, he told her, “we dreamed you into the future.” Our ancestors lived for us; they died for us; and they dreamed for us. Through their collective imaginings, we were all brought into being. What an incredible honor it is for us to carry their life forward through our own.

Sherri Mitchell, Sacred Instructions

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Quote for Today: Steve Maraboli

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It is surprising to me that one of the great crimes of history has gone unnoticed; the abduction of god by religions. This slight-of-hand has been the cause of countless blood-shed and has been found at the root of innumerable acts of evil. The argument continues today, as to which religion the true god belongs, when what would be most healing and empowering is to free god from the shackles of religious limitation and judgment. It is by emancipating god from the ignorance of our ancestors that we become empowered to explore and express our own relationship with what god may or may not be.

Steve Maraboli

Image: Sunrise Thailand Ko Samui © Lisa Tancsics with CCLicense

Quote for Today: Marcel Proust

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When we have passed a certain age, the soul of the child that we were and the souls of the dead from whom we sprang come and shower upon us their riches and their spells, asking to be allowed to contribute to the new emotions which we feel and in which, erasing their former image, we recast them in an original creation.

― Marcel Proust, The Captive 

Sadko in the Underwater Kingdom, Ilya Repin, 1876

Quote for Today: Tanya Tagaq

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We are our ancestors. The spiritual umbilicus is apparent to all. The dead look upon us with the pure love of a mother’s gaze. But the dead love us even more because of our flawed flesh and eternal confusion. The removal from form allows for total and complete unconditional love. We carry our dead with us like helium balloons. There is no breaking the umbilicus.
Tanya Tagaq, Split Tooth

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Quote for Today: William Faulkner

 

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We have a few old mouth-to-mouth tales; we exhume from old trunks and boxes and drawers letters without salutation or signature, in which men and women who once lived and breathed are now merely initials or nicknames out of some now incomprehensible affection which sound to us like Sanskrit or Chocktaw; we see dimly people, the people in whose living blood and seed we ourselves lay dormant and waiting, in this shadowy attenuation of time possessing now heroic proportions, performing their acts of simple passion and simple violence, impervious to time and inexplicable.

William Faulkner, Absalom, Absalom!

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Quote for Today: Alexander Chee

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When I am gripped with despair, when I think I might stop, I speak to my dead. Tell them a story. What am I doing with this life? They hold me accountable. I let them make me bolder or more modest or louder or more moving, but I ask them to listen, and then write.

Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel: Essays

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Quote for Today: James Loewen

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Many African societies divide humans into three categories: those still alive on the earth, the sasha, and the zamani. The recently departed whose time on earth overlapped with people still here are the sasha, the living-dead. They are not wholly dead, for they still live in the memories of the living, who can call them to mind, create their likeness in art, and bring them to life in anecdote. When the last person to know an ancestor dies, that ancestor leaves the sasha for the zamani, the dead. As generalised ancestors, the zamani are not forgotten but revered. Many … can be recalled by name. But they are not the living-dead. There is a difference.
James Loewen, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong

Sculpture made by the Nok Culture, Nigeria: Image © Ji-Elle with CCLicense

Quote for Today: Jalina Mhyana

 

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The Wishing Bones

A thousand grandmothers ago
Pyrrha and Deucalion repopulated
the world with rocks, bones of mother Earth,
a generation of my ancestors strained
from the mud of a drowned planet.

But I’m more interested in my earliest
grandmothers, their gills and wetness,
before they crawled from that blue expanse
and learned to carry the sea within them,
in their cells, between their cells, in their eyes.

The buoyancy of ocean has never left us.
It hides in skin’s complex reservoir
where we’re selectively permeable
and our bodies exchange the smallest life.

If we had no need to distinguish ourselves
from others we’d be missing the skin
that defines lovers and enemies
and opens itself to both.

Jalina Mhyana, from Spikeseed

Public Domain Image via Pixabay