A dark event inspires Erdrich's new novel

May 30, 2008 12:18:53 PM PDT
In her new novel, "The Plague of Doves," Louise Erdrich explores a dark secret of North Dakota's history - the lynching of three American Indians, one of them a 13-year-old boy, in 1897.

"I wanted to try and do some sort of justice to that event," Erdrich says about the killings in her home state. "It was such a wrenching event in my mind."

Erdrich's response was to write about what happens "when vengeance is done ... but no justice is done." The result was "The Plague of Doves," which has won rave reviews from critics and is in its third printing since being published in April.

In "The Plague of Doves," three Indians are lynched after a farm family is murdered on the edge of a North Dakota reservation in 1911. All three are innocent; the real killer, revealed at the end of the book, escapes detection and punishment. Erdrich named one of the lynching victims in her book Paul Holy Track, after the 13-year-old victim of the historic lynching.

"You know 13-year-olds - they're children. How can you lynch a child?" Erdrich asks in amazement during an interview in a sandwich shop next to her bookstore, BirchBark Books, in Minneapolis.

Erdrich, of European and Ojibwe descent, sees parallels between the hunger for vengeance that followed the murders of six members of a North Dakota farm family in Emmons County more than a century ago and the aftermath of 9/11.

"I think vengeance, rather than sitting back and allowing justice to be done over time, is really so much a part of our history. And unfortunately, it's part of our present, as well," Erdrich said.

"This is common after any sort of horrific event. There's a terrible thirst for someone to blame, for someone to be caught and punished right away, and immediately. We saw that after 9/11. I felt the same thing in my own heart. ... And it became twisted around until we're in this terrible situation we are in now."

"The Plague of Doves" draws its title from now-extinct passenger pigeons. Many of its chapters originally appeared as magazine stories. Erdrich was struggling with writing a science fiction book that had ballooned to 400 pages when she turned to the stories that make up novel.

"Finally I looked at them and realized they all connected, and I had this wonderful experience of realizing I'd written a mystery. Then I had to go and put the clues back in," she says.

In the real-life Emmons County lynching, a mob of 40 men stormed the jail, dragged off three defendants with ropes around their necks and hanged them from a beef windlass used to suspend cattle carcasses. One of the lynching victims was a French-Indian man who had been granted a new trial by the North Dakota Supreme Court. The others were Holy Track and another full-blooded Indian, according to a New York Times account of the lynching.

No one in the lynch mob ever was prosecuted, and two other suspects, who were jailed miles away in Bismarck, N.D, were released after the lynching.

Erdrich sets "The Plague of Doves" in the fictional town of Pluto, N.D. She is reluctant to identify the book's geography, which does not conform to North Dakota's.

"Because if you're from North Dakota you want to locate it, but I don't locate it anywhere," Erdrich says. She explains she wants the town "to be more universal. And also because I don't want people to think it's about them, because it's not. It's imagined. It's not about any particular town or any particular people."

Erdrich, whose first novel "Love Medicine" was published in 1984 and won the National Book Critics Circle Award, opened the way for other Native American authors, said novelist David Treuer, an Ojibwe from the Leech Lake Reservation in northern Minnesota.

"Just the brilliance of (her novel 'Tracks') helped me imagine myself as a writer and my world as worthwhile material for exploration," said Treuer, who cites the lyricism and "emotional complexity" of Erdrich's work.

"In the pantheon (of American Indian writers), she's at the top," Treuer said.

Erdrich grew up in Wahpeton, in southeastern North Dakota, and is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in northern North Dakota. Like her character Evelina in "The Plague of Doves," Erdrich is of mixed descent - her father, Ralph Erdrich, is German-American and her mother, Rita Gourneau Erdrich is French-Ojibwe.

Her mixed heritage is reflected in Erdrich's fine features and long, gray-tinged hair. The soft-spoken Erdrich appears a bit distracted on this day - she confesses she looks "sort of hopeless and desperate" because of that unfinished science fiction book. But she changes into a denim outfit with colorful earrings and gamely poses for pictures in her bookstore.

Erdrich, who turns 54 on June 7, includes autobiographical touches in "The Plague of Doves." The oldest of seven children, she remembers trying to watch "The Three Stooges" on television and having to use pliers to turn on the TV because the knobs were hidden away - just as her character Evelina does.

Erdrich says she enjoyed writing about Evelina, who is a descendant of both people who were lynched in "The Plague of Doves" and the lynchers.

"We are all mixed up together. There's been so much finger-pointing and blame," Erdrich says. "I'm a mixed background; so many people are, of this country. We all have mixtures in our backgrounds, now."