Apr/May 2008

PAST TENSE, PRESENT TENSE, TOO

Yona Zeldis McDonough


In 1911, five members—father, mother, two sons, teenage daughter—of a family of six are murdered in their North Dakota home. Only a baby girl, whose crib is hidden from sight, survives the massacre. Four Indians selling handmade willow baskets stumble on the carnage; they are accused of the killings and, in a brutal instance of what their accusers dub “rough justice,” are hung within a day. The youngest is a boy of thirteen named Holy Tracks. It is these murders—by shotgun, by blade, and at the end of a rope—that form the fulcrum of Louise Erdrich’s powerful, if flawed, twelfth novel, The Plague of Doves.

In Erdrich’s modus operandi, narrative is anything but linear. Instead, it forms a serpentine path through time that always leads the reader back to the horrific attack on the Lochren family and to the equally horrific “executions” it spawned. In addition, Erdrich employs multiple narrators, who together form a haunting chorus of voices from the past and the present.

The first of these is Evelina, granddaughter of Mooshum. Mooshum was one of the four who rode in the wagon toward the improvised gallows and swung along with the others; at the last minute, he was cut down, allowed to live for reasons that neither we nor Evelina learns until much later. What Evelina does hear from her grandfather changes her; she becomes obsessed with the murders, avid to understand how the lives of the descendants—of both perpetrators and victims— continue to intersect in the fictional town of Pluto, North Dakota.

Evelina’s lengthy narrative can be frustrating; Erdrich breaks the young woman’s tale into short chapters, each given its own heading. The headings feel like interruptions, choppy and awkward. And the author undercuts her skill as a storyteller by broadcasting events yet to come: “In this place, my Mooshum and his bride-to-be would live for six years, until the ranch was broken up and Moosh was nearly lynched.” This comes at the end of a section about a character called Moustache Maud and yanks us out of the story, stalling the momentum. It’s as if Erdrich doesn’t trust her powers—which are considerable—to carry us along and instead has to make sure we know the outcome before the full meaning of the event is allowed to resonate.

Yet there are other places where the story moves as quickly and fluidly as a deer through a forest. The section titled “The Clatter of Wings” describes the hanging of the four men and is rich in specificity and detail. Here is Holy Tracks, as he takes his last, strangled breaths: “He heard it when Cuthbert, and then his uncle, stopped singing and gurgling. Behind his shut eyes, he was seized by a black fear, until he heard his mother say, Open your eyes, and he stared into the dusty blue. Then it was better. The little wisps of the clouds, way up high, had resolved into wings and they swept across the sky now, faster and faster.” A long section narrated by a farm girl, Marn Wolde, is pitch-perfect. At sixteen, Marn meets and marries a young evangelical Christian, Billy Peace. Billy is related to Cuthbert Peace, one of the Indians hanged in 1911. The story of Billy’s spiritual rise and fall—the following he attracts, the hellfire-and-damnation cult he founds—spins out in an inexorable, harrowing trajectory. Marn is drawn to his charismatic aura: “You don’t know preaching until you’ve heard Billy Peace. You don’t know subjection, the killing happiness of letting go. You don’t know how light and comforted you feel, how cherished.” But the attraction sours: “Another month passes and Billy’s chins double so he wears a thick flesh collar. We make love every night but I am embarrassed. He is so loud, so ecstatic. I am tossed side to side on top of him, as if I am riding a bull whale. . . . The bed creaks like the timbers of a boat going down in a gale, and when he comes I feel heavy and swamped.”

“I have lived with this story for many years,” says Erdrich in the book’s press release, “writing parts of it in my notebooks and on any available scrap of paper whenever inspiration struck. . . . But for a long time the novel refused to come together, until at last, and quite suddenly, I found the elusive connections and the narrative seemed to spin out of me in a fever pitch.”

There’s the rub: The novel has the feel of something stitched together from disparate, and at times incongruous, parts. There are places where the stitching is strong and true and the result is whole cloth, seamless to the eye and unfurling with an easy grace. But in other spots, the novel’s patchwork nature is all too apparent, and the thing will just not hang together, no matter how hard the author has tried to smooth it into shape.

Then there is the late introduction of Dr. Cordelia Lochren. Her deus ex machina appearance proves handy for revealing long-withheld information and tying up loose ends. Now we understand the importance of the stamp collection lovingly assembled by Evelina’s father; now the role that Marn’s uncle Warren—bitter and brimming with barely concealed malevolence—played in the deaths of the Lochren family is made clear. The intent in these last pages may well have been to astonish us with the ineluctable ties between past and present; instead, the pages feel forced, as if the strings on the marionettes had suddenly been painted with Day-Glo colors.

But despite its occasionally balky pacing and awkward moments, Erdrich’s tale is redeemed by the author’s attachment to her roots and fervent need to evoke—with deftness, complexity, tenderness, and ferocity—the world of her ancestors. “History,” observed James Joyce, “is the nightmare from which I try to awaken.” Erdrich knows this deep in her bones, and The Plague of Doves is the waking dream she was compelled to transcribe for the record.

Yona Zeldis McDonough is the author of the novels The Four Temperaments (2002) and In Dahlia’s Wake (2005; both Doubleday).

Advertisement