Louise Erdrich


"The Plague of Doves"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple MAY 10, 2008)

"[Mooshum's story of the murders and then the lynchings] had its repercussions—the first being that I [Evelina] could not look at anyone in quite the same way anymore.  I became obsessed with lineage…I wrote down as much of Mooshum's story as I could remember, and then the relatives of everyone I knew—parents, grandparents, way on back in time.  I traced the blood history of the murders through my classmates and friends until I could draw out elaborate spider webs of lines and intersecting circles.  Still I could not erase the questions underneath, and Mooshum was no help."

When Seraph Milk, known as Mooshum to his young granddaughter Evelina, haltingly describes to her a brutal 1911 crime in which he was involved, he reveals the underlying horrors which unite and divide all the families she knows.  Mooshum was one of four Ojibwa Indians from Pluto, North Dakota, who were captured and strung up for the gruesome murder of the Lochrens, a white family.  Only Mooshum, among the Indians captured in the area immediately after the murders, miraculously survived the vigilante hangings, while ironically, an infant daughter, overlooked by the murderers, survived the Lochren massacre. 

As Mooshum narrates his tale, Evelina is stunned, noting that "It wasn't like he was talking to us, or even using his usual storytelling voice... This was different. Now it was like he was stuck in some way, on some track, like he couldn't stop the story from forcing its way out."

The murder and lunchings reverberate through all the relationships within both the Indian and white communities here, connecting the characters for almost one hundred years during the course of this novel.  Erdrich is at her best here, telling family stories—horrifying, loving, hilarious, mystical, passionate, lyrical, and thoughtful—as she reveals life in the Native American and white communities from multiple points of view, across time.

The town of Pluto--mostly German and Norwegian, originally--has developed on the edge of reservation land, and as time passes, many surprising intermarriages take place among the families who have been most affected by the massacre and the "rough justice" of its aftermath.   As individual courtship stories are told, and as the various narrators reflect their own connections to the town and to each other, the character of Pluto is seen changing and broadening, and Erdrich's themes emerge.  Members of the Milk, Harp, Peace, Coutts, Wildstrand, and Buchendorf families weave their way through the tales told by three interconnected generations during the novel, until their relationships are so entangled that everyone in Pluto is part of the history of everyone else—related by blood and the past.  "Nothing that happens," one character observes, "nothing, is not connected here by blood."

Beginning in the early part of the twentieth century with the "plague of doves," the repeated attack each year by hundreds of thousands of doves, which have to be driven off the land to protect newly planted seed, Erdrich describes the uniting of the community on the reservation—in this case, to "pray away" the doves and clear the fields.  Common goals, common traditions, and common history show the vibrant local Chippewa community which is threatened by the building of the town of Pluto. 

An influx of white residents, many of whom resent the very people on whose land they are building their town, has exposed the Native American community to danger, the lynchings in the aftermath of the Lochren murders being only one part of it.  Intermarriages represent a more long-term danger, and white priests and the Christian church erode the traditional spiritual beliefs.  As residents gradually begin to move from the reservation community to the town, seeking opportunities, the old traditions become weaker, and by the end of three or four generations, the young people, often of mixed blood, are seeking even "better" opportunities in the world beyond Pluto.

Filling her novel with vibrant characters who share their lives and stories—and often cast new light on old stories—Erdrich creates a kaleidoscope of swirling images and moods, filled with irony.  The drama of the murder and hangings shares time and space with hilarious scenes in which Mooshum and his unregenerate friends taunt the local priest.  Ironically, other members of his family actually consider becoming priests.  Evelina, the third generation, looks for answers, not in religion, but in psychology and love.  Another young man Evelina's age, having tried kidnapping as an activity, becomes an evangelical preacher with a large commune and a snake-handling wife.  Though the past and tradition exert their influence, they becomes less important to subsequent generations, who become selective of the past while looking toward the future, and by the end of the novel, "the dead of Pluto now outnumber the living." 

Though some of Erdrich's character sketches and stories end rather abruptly, perhaps that, too, is part of the thematic structure—in real life such stories also end abruptly, as times and people change.  With a far greater emphasis on characters and their stories than we have seen in Erdrich's most recent, more plot-based novels, and with a grand canopy of theme overarching all, this novel is a triumph--big, broad, thoughtful, and ultimately, important.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 64 reviews

Read a chapter excerpt from The Plague of Doves at The New York Times

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"The Painted Drum"

(Reviewed by Mary Whipple OCT 30, 2004)

"Some people believe objects absorb something of their owner's essence. I stay clear of that. And yet, when I step near the drum, I swear it sounds. One deep, low, resonant note. I stop dead still, staring at the drum. I hear it, I know I hear it, and yet Sarah Tatro does not."

When Faye Travers, an estate agent in New Hampshire, inventories the home of John Jewett Tatro at the behest of his niece and heirs, she is aware that Tatro's grandfather was once an Indian agent on an Ojibwe reservation and that his grandmother was Indian. Faye, of Indian heritage herself, is hoping to find some Indian artifacts that can be sold or donated to a museum on behalf of the estate. Sarah Tatro, the niece, is not much interested in "old beadwork and stuff," and she has almost forgotten the old storage room in the attic, but when she opens it, Faye finds a room packed with suitcases containing beadwork, baskets, moccasins and other handwork, a cradleboard, and a beaded footstool—a collection of enormous value.

Neither Faye nor Sarah Tatro notices the drum, at first—three feet in diameter, hollowed out from a single piece of cedar wood and covered by a moose hide. Suddenly, the drum "speaks" to Faye, resonating with a single, deep note which only she hears.

The story of the "Little Girl" drum (with no spoilers here) takes the reader from Faye's life and love story in New Hampshire to an Ojibwe reservation in Minnesota. Bernard Shaawano, the grandson of the man who made the drum, has been contacted by a judge, the nephew of old Nanapush, who informs him that the drum has returned to the reservation.

As Bernard narrates the history of the drum in Part II, he tells the stories of his grandfather and grandmother Anaquot on the reservation, explaining why his grandfather made the drum, what he was memorializing, and how this drum eventually came into the possession of John Jewett Tatro in New Hampshire. The fascinating process by which the drum was made, the ceremonies and traditional beliefs accompanying it, and the traumatic lives and deaths of the Shaawano family over three generations connect the drum and its history with the essence of Ojibwe life and death.

In the third part of the novel, Shawnee, a young girl living in a remote area of the reservation, is left babysitting for her younger brother and baby sister on a bitterly cold night in which they have not enough fuel and no food. Their mother has gone to town for help, but she gets sidetracked drinking, leaving the children alone for several days. The depiction of the lives of the children is heart-rending, and their connection to the "Little Girl Drum" adds another layer of mystery to the drum's "life."

Written with a homey intimacy and honesty, Erdrich brings the reader into the lives of her characters, real people with real faults and real conflicts. Generous in her assessment of their characters, she does not make value judgments about them, showing instead the circumstances which have led them to behave as they do--for better or worse--and how they are all connected through the drum. Nature, which intimately affects the lives and deaths of these characters, is further emphasized through the many symbols and repeating motifs—a field of orb spiders, jewelweed, a dog which escapes its cruel confines, wolves and their mystical connection with mankind. Always, of course, Erdrich conveys Indian spiritual values, even as she depicts their often sad and limited lives.

Tightly organized, with stories spanning three generations and interconnecting three different families—Faye Travers and her mother Elsie, Bernard Shaawano, and Shawnee and her mother Ira— The Painted Drum is a powerful novel which taps into universal feelings and hopes, even as it depicts some of life's most terrible events.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 34 reviews

 



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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

**Ojibwe reservation

With her husband, Michael Dorris:

For Young Readers:

Nonfiction:

Related:

E-Book Study Guide:

 

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About the Author:

Louise ErdrichKaren Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1954 to a Chippewa mother and a German-American father. As a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, she grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town near a reservation, where both of her parents were teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While growing up, her father encouraged her and sisters to write stories by paying a nickel for each story. She was brought up listening to stories by her mother and maternal grandmother. She also credits her interest in writing to the lack of television and movie exposure.

In 1972, Erdrich earned a scholarship to Dartmouth College. This was also the first year the college admitted women and the year the Native American studies department was created. The department was headed up by anthropologist Michael Dorris who later became her collaborator and husband. In 1978 she enrolled in an M.A. program at John Hopkins University where she wrote poems and stories incorporating her heritage. After Erdrich received her master's degree, she returned to Dartmouth as a poet and writer-in-residence. In 1980, Dorris and Erdrich started successfully collaborating and by 1981 they were married. Together they raised six children, the first three were adopted. Sadly, in April 1997, Dorris committed suicide after having separated from Erdrich and allegations of child abuse.

In 1985, The National Books Critics Circle honored her as the year's best novelist. Her novels include the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Love Medicine and the National Book Award finalist The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, as well as poetry, children's books, and a memoir of early motherhood, The Blue Jay's Dance. Her short fiction has won the National Magazine Award and is included in the O. Henry and Best American short-story collections.

She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore, The Birchbark.

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