Saturday, April 03, 2010

The Plague of Doves

A few years ago I rode my bike manically downtown through a snowstorm to a book group meeting, eager to discuss Louise Erdrich's The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse.  I stomped into the meeting room and sat thawing in front of the fireplace, waiting. No one showed up.  I asked the librarian why and she shrugged.  
Erdrich is one of the best living American novelists and deserves not only book group reverence but also a Nobel Prize along with Philip Roth and Joyce Carol Oates (since Americans are snubbed, perhaps a three-way split could be arranged).  But I do have a love-hate relationship with Erdrich, because I have difficulty remembering the characters (some of whom appear in several novels).  I am halfway through her remarkable 2008 novel, A Plague of Doves , but I wish there were a genealogy chart to straighten out the relationships between her multiple narrators and their families and ancestors.  This exquisite novelistic tapestry of linked stories depicts the lives of generations of several families loosely related through a racist lynching of Native Americans blamed for the murder of a white family near the Obijwe Reservation in North Dakota in 1911.  The tales are laced with magic realism and poetic dexterity;  Erdrich manipulates her characters back and forth in time with aplomb.  The novel begins with a short sketch, a kind of prologue, "Solo," a bleak description of the crime, shocking and puzzling us for several chapters.  But the first actual chapter begins with a tale known by the narrator, Evelina, through the stories of her grandfather and great-uncle, about a plague of doves like a plague of locusts destroying the fields:  
“In the year 1896, my great-uncle, one of the first Catholic priests of aboriginal blood, put the call out to parishioners that they should gather at St. Joseph's wearing scapulars and holding missals.  From that place they would proceed to walk the fields in a long, sweeping row, and with each step proudly pray away the doves."  

Praying away the doves.  What an image!  Erdrich's books bear rereading and their organization is clear on a second reading.  Even looking back through the book I can see patterns I didn't initially understand.

I hope to reread her early novels this year:  I picked up many at the book sale and expect she will be one of my "main authors" this year.


Vintage Reading said...

I'm a gread admirer of Erdrich but I nearly parted company with her over The Plague of Doves! Great start but towards the middle it's all over the place. Hope you get on with it better than I did. I think the The Painted Drum is the finest of her recent works and Love Medicine is her best novel. I would agree that she doesn't get the acclaim she deserves - she has a new novel out 'Shadow Tag' but the chances of it being stocked in a mainstream bookshop in the UK will not be high. Shame about the reading group.

Frisbee said...

I do know what you mean about the middle. It's a beautiful novel, but not her best. How strange that she's not mainstream in the UK. Here her books are always reviewed and you can find them anywhere. She's published in The New Yorker regularly, and that's a big boost.

I wonder what writers we're missing over here...

Buried In Print said...

I, too, would love a chart, something colourful that tucks into a cover pocket when not in use, but removable so it could lie across the book as you read; I read her short story collection The Red Convertible last year, and did a lot of flipping back and forth to try to keep the characters' overlapping-ness straight. Do think she's wonderful though, and I would love to read her work through

Frisbee said...

Yes, a pocket chart would be perfect! Haven't read The Red Convertible, but I do hope to read more of Erdrich this year.