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.