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Ms. Magazine
Sunday, May 4th, 2008
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The Plague of Doves

by Louise Erdrich

Tree of Life

A review by Diana Postlethwaite

At the heart of Louise Erdrich's incandescent novel stands a tree. Roots deep in the North Dakota soil, it's the family tree of generations of "bold and passionate" French-Chippewa Métis peoples and the more earthbound German and Norwegian immigrants who live in and around the small town of Pluto. Ringed with mating and mayhem, friendship and betrayal, stories shared and secrets kept, this tree spreads its branches through the pages of Erdrich's book: from a gritty, colorful adventure of 19th-century town-site expeditioners one arctic winter to the rueful, darkly comic sexual explorations of a naive l970s teenager named (appropriately!) Evelina.

For this is also a Tree of Knowledge, bearing bliss and bale, sexual initiation and mortal conflict. The first tale told in the story-filled Plague of Doves is, as it should be, a myth of origins: Evelina hears from her grandfather Mooshum how he met and fell in love with her grandmother Junesse Malaterre one magical day when doves blanketed the branches -- and the townspeople slaughtered the birds en masse. As in the Genesis story, Sex and Death come into the world hand in hand: "Now that some of us have mixed in the spring of our existence both guilt and victim, there is no unraveling the rope," writes Erdrich.

Erdrich's tree is rooted in history as well as myth, standing (literally) on the liminal border between the farmland of European immigrants and Native American "allotment" territory. Old hatreds lie at the root of this hanging tree where, in 1911, a band of farmers lynch four innocent Métis men as retribution for the mass murder of a local farm family.

That horrific crime both begins and closes The Plague of Doves, to the startling accompaniment of violin music. Music is the other recurring metaphor of this beautiful book -- and Erdrich uses musical language to paint it on the page: "The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous....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...and this realization was in the music."

Erdrich can and does "live at that pitch," and her reader must be willing to submit to equal measures of joy and terror. The Plague of Doves stands with her best work. It's filled with seductive storytelling: the magical tale of a traveling violin that "finds" its true owner across generations, a lesbian affair between two I-never-promised-you-a-rose-garden teenagers in a mental hospital, a firsthand account of that lynching by a hanging victim who didn't die. And connecting it all are both a satisfyingly clever murder mystery (who did slaughter that family?) and Erdrich's astonishing imagination.

Diana Postlethwaite is the Boldt Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Humanities at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., and a frequent reviewer of contemporary fiction.

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