I had a lot of trouble figuring out how to approach this novel. I felt like something was lost in translation and I couldn’t quite put my finger on what – perhaps it was so removed from my own experience. I’m not from the US, I’ve only spent a very small amount of time there and I’m not knowledgeable on the colonial history and relationships between white settlement and Native American peoples. Having said that, I feel like I know a lot more having read the novel and I’m glad I persisted with it.
Told from alternating viewpoints, in a North Dakota town outside the Ojibwe reservation, the novel gradually becomes layered with the individual family histories of the narrators. The novel also tells the story of the history of the land and its people, the history of white exploration and settlement. The fraught and increasingly intertwined relationships between the two. Like the plague of doves itself, the individual tales start quite innocuously and gradually, through the weight of injustice and time, they converge to the one act of horrific racism the novel centres in one painful and subtly written chapter.
This is a rich tapestry Erdrich is weaving and she does so remarkably skillfully, with a deftness quite in contrast to the weighty subject matter. I really got a feeling of history, shared and separate, and wasteful, totally unnecessary tragedy of racial violence. The loves, friendships and mutual respect that develops between the descendants provide a perspective and conduit for healing from past injustice. I don’t think I’m doing this review much justice but I would recommend this novel and I’d like to find more of Erdrich’s work to read while I’m at it.
The Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich: Four stars.
Read it when: you’ve got a bit of space in your brain to take on sweeping historical plot arcs and a bit of room in your heart for generations of pretty intense tragedies and triumphs.