I finished The Plague of Doves while mediating a ridiculous dispute among 8 year old boys. Grrr...teaching children to be nice to each other is no easy feat.
The Plague of Doves is told through several narrators spanning a period of about 80 years. When the book starts, the narrator is a school girl named Evelina. She is fascinated by the stories of her grandfather and great-uncle. One day they reveal a chilling story about an entire farm family that was found murdered back in 1911, with only a baby left alive. The townspeople are convinced that a group of Indians killed the family. The white men hang the Indians, including a 14 year old boy, in an act of brutal vigilante justice. It is 50 years later, and the novel shows how the descendants of both the hanged men and the white men are now entwined and entangled in their small North Dakota town, Pluto.
In subsequent sections, we see Evelina grow older and leave the reservation to go to college. There are 3 other narrators: Judge Antone Bazil Coutts, a man who marries Evelina's aunt; Marn Wolde, a young woman who falls in love with a traveling preacher; and Doctor Cordelia Lochren, an old woman in the novel who it turns out is child that survived the murder of her family back in 1911.
I just love Erdrich's writing style. Most of the time, her writing is lyrical and poetic. She has a gift for describing both the natural world around her, but also for describing the complex tangle of human emotions. Here's her description of Mooshum, Evelina's grandfather, when he describes what it was like when he saw his long-deceased wife for the first time:
Mooshum paused in his story. His hands opened and the hundreds of wrinkles in his face folded into a mask of unsurpassable happiness....The Holy Spirit hovered between them...Then her mouth opened. Did they kiss? I couldn't ask Mooshum. Perhaps she smiled. She hadn't had time to write his name even once upon her body, though, and besides she didn't even know his name. They saw into each other's beings, therefore names were irrelevant. They ran away together, Mooshum said, before each had thought to ask what the other was called. And then they decided not to have names for a while---all that mattered was they had escaped, slipped their knots, cut the harnesses that relatives had already tightened" (12).
I love this description of falling in love at first sight, and of how the years fell away from his face as he thought of her. But just as beautiful as the prose, the characters are also very earthy and funny. One of my favorite part of the book is later on when Evelina is about 19. She wants only to go to Paris, and she spends all of her spare time studying French out of books. One day at the diner where she works as a waitress, her boss Earl mocks her for studying French. He hates her books and one day says to her, "The French are pussies." Her Uncle Whitey happens to be in the diner, and he quickly fires back, "Take that word back, or I'll fight you. Thou shalt not take that word in vain" (186). This whole exchange cracked me up. I thought it was hilarious that her Uncle would basically declare his love of pussy in front of her while at the same time being too squeamish to say the word in front of her.
The Magical and Fantastic
I wouldn't say that Erdrich's genre is magical realism, but these characters definitely believe in magic and grace and the power of the unknown. Evelina's great-uncle is called by a vision to the banks of the lake. Days later, a mysterious canoe with only a beautiful violin inside drifts straight to him. Later, they find a note in the violin explaining how it was set adrift, like a message in a bottle, 20 years before it arrives on his shores.
Several characters in the story collect stamps, and the story of how they are found and destroyed is both ethereal and beautiful. Some stamps are magically recovered while others are carelessly destroyed. Letters are sent but never received, or received by the wrong person or many years too late.
A man gets his mistress pregnant. Her brother comes to ask him for money, rather than give it to him straight out, the man concocts a sinister but brilliant plan. He convinces the brother to kidnap his wife so that he can pay a ransom. Although the kidnap plot goes off without a hitch, the wife is never the same. He finally admits the truth to her and goes to jail. Both the mistress and the wife repudiate their love for him once they know what he has done.
Marne has an affinity for snakes. She coils huge, venomous snakes up with her and harvests their venom. One night, she plunges a syringe full of venom into her husband's heart, killing him instantly. Her husband was the brother from the previous anecdote, the one who kidnaps the wife to get money for his pregnant sister. As another murder in the book, it seems to imply that her actions are vigilante justice gone awry.
The Final Analysis
At the end of the book, there was a list of magazines and journals that published certain chapters as short stories. I had a bit of an A-ha! moment. Although I liked the book tremendously, it just didn't "hang" very well as a novel. It's roughly woven together, but it never really builds up in intensity and strength the way I expect from good novels. I almost wish I would have known that beforehand, because I think I would have "rolled with it" a little more. Instead, I found myself frustrated by the loose threads and wondering how it was going to all come together. Even the last section narrated by Cordelia feels a bit off. She's not a major part of the novel at all, and she only narrates this one last section. It seems like she's the bow meant to tie it all together at the end. That's clearly her "purpose" for narrating, unlike the others who have interesting stories to tell. It feels forced because she's a new narrator at the very end, yet she was largely irrelevant to the thrust of the main narrative.
I still enjoyed the book, there was too much interesting stuff there that I really liked. I just wish is would have been woven together a bit more convincingly.