The jacket narrative of The Plague of Doves is rather
deceptive. Erdrich's latest offering isn't really a novel;
it's a collection of short stories loosely tied together
through the lynching mentioned in the book's description.
The core story serves as a touchstone, a place to connect
the diverse tales, but doesn't play a central part in the
characters' actions or development. Very little of the book
is about the brutal murders related in the book's one-page
introduction, focusing instead on relationships within and
Short story collections often suffer from unevenness in quality from tale to tale. Such is not the case with The Plague of Doves. All of the stories in this compilation are engaging and exceptionally well-written, with a depth rarely found in full-length novels, let alone the abbreviated format of the short story. Erdrich is a master story-teller. One of her strengths is her ability to shift narrative style from chapter to chapter, depending on the scene, event or character at the core of each tale. At times her writing is lyrical, at others unembellished narration. Some parts of this book are laugh-out-loud funny; she imbues others with a sense of loss that resonates so deeply with the reader that the events portrayed are completely unforgettable. She vividly describes not only the sights of the plains, but its tastes and smells as well:
"The wind came off the dense-grassed slough, smelling like wet hair, and the hot ditch grass reached for it, butter yellow, its life concentrated in its fiber mat, each stalk so dry it gave off a puff of smoke when snapped. Grasshoppers sprang from each step, tripped off my arms, legs, eyebrows. There was a small pile of stones halfway up the hill. Someone had cleared that hillside once to make an orchard that had fallen into ruin and was now only twisted silver branches and split trunks. I sat there and continued to watch the sky as, out of nowhere, great solid-looking clouds built hot stacks and cotton cones."
However, some of the stories, particularly
those in the middle third of the book, just don't seem to
fit. The reader struggles to find a way to relate them to
the broader outline of what is purported to be the heart of
the novel. In some cases the connection to the lynching is
so tenuous that it's difficult to understand why the tale
was included, sometimes consisting of nothing more than one
sentence mentioning a vague relationship to someone who took
part in the lynching nearly 100 years prior. In others,
characters from previous chapters behave so completely
contrary to the way they were portrayed earlier that the
later story doesn't seem to be about the same person. The
insertion of these tales feels unsettling and contrived.
While entertaining, they do nothing to resolve the central
mystery of the murder and subsequent lynching.
As short story collections go, Plague of Doves is superb. As a novel, its lack of cohesion leaves something to be desired. If the reader approaches the narrative expecting short stories, they will not be disappointed, as this is easily one of the best compilations to be published in a long time. If, however, the reader is looking for a well-written novel, he or she may find it more satisfaction in one of Erdrich's earlier plot-driven works such as The Painted Drum or The Master Butcher's Singing Club.
This review was originally published in June 2008, and has been updated for the May 2009 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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