I wish I’d known from the beginning that nine different chapters of The Plague of Doves had been originally published as standalone short stories. I don’t know whether Louise Erdrich had this complete novel in mind when she wrote the stories, but it’s the pieces of the novel that work, not the whole.
First, let me step back. I started to listen to the audiobook of this a few months ago. I was immediately drawn into the story of a murder outside the town of Pluto, North Dakota; the American Indian men lynched for the trial; and Evelina Harp, a girl who is hearing the story for the first time from her grandfather, the lone Indian survivor of the lynching. Kathleen McInerney’s narration did not blow me away to the degree that Anna Fields’s did in The Painted Drum, but it was fine. Then the book shifted to a series of vignettes recollected by the local judge Antone Basil Coots, and Peter Francis James took over as reader. James had previously killed not one, but two audiobooks for me. I find his voice to lack expression, and he pauses at the commas in a weirdly mechanical way that I cannot unhear once I’ve heard it. So I returned the audiobook to the library and took out the print book.
This time, the first bit went smoothly once again, but when I got to Coots’s section, I was stymied a second time. What does this have to do with anything? Who are these people? The writing was as good as I’d expect from Erdrich, and bits and pieces of the story were interesting—I especially liked the kidnapping of Neve Wildstrand—but this wasn’t the story I’d signed up for. I wanted my other story back! I recognized plenty of names and places, but the connections were too vague. The only thematic connection seemed to be that everything is vaguely connected. That wasn’t enough.
Both of the other Erdrich novels I’ve read, Love Medicine and The Painted Drum, consisted of interlocking stories. The Painted Drum is a series of stories linked by a drum, so the connections are clear. Love Medicine is more meandering, like The Plague of Doves, but it still felt unified. Perhaps it’s that the scope is smaller, just two families instead of a whole town. Perhaps it’s that I knew when I started that it was linked stories and didn’t expect a strongly forward-moving narrative. I don’t know.
Eventually, the various threads do come together, but it wasn’t particularly satisfying. The leaps in time left large holes in some of the characters’ stories, and the growth that led them from one point to the other was lacking. For instance, I loved both of the stories involving Billy Peace, but I couldn’t wrap my mind around how the man in the first story became the man in the later one. I was mostly pleased with the way the murder story was resolved and thought that the big secret surrounding it was set up and tied up nicely. However, one of the big questions surrounding a character in that story was answered in a cheatery fashion, by bringing in a character whose existence was scarcely even hinted at, unless I missed something.
Overall, this book didn’t quite live up to my expectations of a Louise Erdrich novel. It’s not a bad book, just unpolished. I imagine if I’d encountered just about any of the chapters as they were originally published as short stories, I would have liked them more. So if you read this book, keep in mind what I wish I’d known, that these are short stories, linked together with the wispiest of threads. Don’t worry about that thread, just experience each story as a single strand. Step back to view the complete web only when you’re done. It just might be more impressive then.