By John Freeman
A glance at the “E” section of your local bookstore would probably not give the impression that Louise Erdrich is a woman willing to wait. Since 1984, the year she debuted with not one, but two books, the Minnesota-born novelist has published more than twenty volumes of poetry, prose, fiction and children’s literature. She also raised four daughters and started an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. This spring, however, Erdrich unveiled proof that she has patience—when she must.
“The Plague of Doves,” her twelfth novel for adults, has landed to rave reviews. “Her most deeply affecting work yet,” wrote New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani. The book has been with Erdrich since the early 1980s, though, whispering to the author while she worked on other books.
“I knew this particular incident was going to be part of it,” says the 53-year-old novelist. “I just didn’t know how I was going to approach it.”
The incident Erdrich refers to was a brutal one. On November 13, 1897, a mob of forty men broke into a North Dakota jail and lynched three American Indians—two young boys (one of whom was named Paul Holy Track) and a grown man—who were among a group being tried for the murders of six members of a white family.
In “The Plague of Doves,” she brilliantly re-imagines this event, bringing to life an entire fictional North Dakota community and tracking how the crime filters down through subsequent generations. The quest for justice is diluted as families involved in the hanging intermarry and mingle. The tribal members keep the story alive through folklore, the whites try to pretend it never happened.
“In the beginning, the whites had all the power,” Erdrich says, by way of explaining the difference in how the crime is dealt with, “but as one reviewer put it: the Indians have the history.”
Although she is often compared to William Faulkner, whose own fictional Yoknapatawpha County is the closest comparison to the world Ms. Erdrich has conjured in North Dakota, her books are not nearly so blood-soaked.
Erdrich says part of this comes from her upbringing. “I lived a very sheltered childhood, a very sweet childhood,” she says, referring to the years she grew up one of seven kids in rural North Dakota.
“It’s against my nature to believe how evil people can be—I didn’t see cruelty a lot, so I didn’t understand it. When it became apparent that the world was different, that the world was different from what I had known as a child, it took me a long time to understand it.”
Her father, who is German, and her mother, who is Ojibwe, were both school teachers and encouraged her to memorize poetry. “I was lucky to have grandparents around, too,” she says—she listened to their stories, and asked questions, something she continues to do. “I still feel like I listen more than I tell.”
Clearly, it’s an inspiration. Like all of Erdrich’s novels, from her National Book Critics Circle Award-winning debut “Love Medicine” to the recent “Four Souls,” this book is full of dozens of memorable characters, whom Erdrich conjures in just a few deft strokes each. Most of Erdrich’s novels take place in a fictional town called Argus on the edge of an Indian reservation. Characters appear and reappear throughout. “The Plague of Doves,” however, ventures slightly outside this terrain and features an all-new cast. So the voices of the main characters—a recent college graduate, a judge, a grandfather and a doctor—came to her over time, at odd moments, their stories in shards.
“I can’t quite know I’m making a book,” Erdrich says. “If I really knew I had to put this all in beginning, when the voices came with such resonance, I really don’t know where they come from… I just feel like I get to take down what they’re telling me.”