Author: Louise Erdrich
Finished on: 10 September 2016
Where did I get this book: A kindle purchase on holiday
It is important to read books about huge, horrible and real injustice. We feel the pain, and by hearing the stories again future generations can learn from the mistakes of the past. Maybe. Sometimes.
So much injustice is borne from treating a group of people as the ‘other’ and using this as the reason for persecution. And the beauty of a well-written book is that it makes this impossible. Immersing yourself in someone’s story means they cannot be the ‘other’ to you anymore. And stories don’t have to be true to help us remember the horrors that people have visited on one another throughout human history.
The treatment of native American people by white settlers is such an injustice. In The Plague Of Doves, Louise Erdrich tells the story of a group of native Americans who are blamed, and killed, for a bloody crime they were unfortunate enough to discover. The repercussions of these events, that occur in 1911, are felt for generations to follow.
The strength of this book is in the complexity and interwoven nature of the families’ lives in the town of Pluto where the action takes place. Native American and white incoming families are joined in a web of friendship and marriage that means easy divisions become impossible. Indeed it all gets so complicated that Evelina, the granddaughter of the only man to escape the lynching alive, draws a diagram of the relationships between all the different members of the local families to help herself understand. I only wish Erdrich had had the generosity to her readers to include this.
There is real horror inherent within the ease with which the community blames and punishes people who are not guilty. But Erdrich does not fall back on stereotypes. If anything, her writing errs on the cold, detached side. She lets the events speak for themselves, without indulging in emotive language to ramp up the drama. There isn’t much to hold onto, and empathise with, in most of her characters. All except the engaging Evelina, from whose perspective much of the story is told, and her grandfather, the hilarious Mooshum, who entertains himself in later life by tormenting the priest trying to convince him of the wisdom of Christianity, and terrifying children at halloween by going out in his pants with his face covered in bread dough.
The most successful sections of the whole book tell the story of the founding of Pluto in 1882. The story of the men who travelled across inhospitable wilderness to stake their claims to ‘new’ land is stunning, as they undergo appalling hardships and real adventure along the way.
What men call adventures usually consists of the stoical endurance of appalling daily misery.
These sections are also surprisingly sympathetic, considering these are some of the same white settlers that will be involved in carrying out the lynching 29 years later.
One thing I found bizarre about the book, which is set near Fargo, is that it seems to lift and shift a whole (very entertaining) storyline from that 1996 film. This book was first published in 2008, and includes the story of a man who gets tangled up in a plot to kidnap his own wife for the ransom money. I always thought the Coen brothers had their tongues firmly in their cheeks when they claimed the film was based on real events. But the inclusion of this plotline in the book has got me wondering?
There are an awful lot of red herrings along the way, several of which are more interesting that truth when it is finally uncovered. And by the end of The Plague Of Doves, the whodunit and the whydunit are almost incidental. It is testament to the success of this book that the bloody murder of a family, and the journey towards uncovering what really happened, is not the highlight.
And what Erdrich shows us beautifully is not that we can understand the perspective of the ‘other’, but that everything is so interwoven and tangled, that the whole idea of the ‘other’ is actually, in this case at least, a load of rubbish.