A plague of pigeons must rank among the least likely of airborne disasters. Yet that historic event is the catalyst for the gorgeous opening of National Book Critics Circle Award-winner Louise Erdrich's new novel The Plague of Doves.
In 1896, the fictional town of Pluto, N.D., is inundated with passenger pigeons – one of the last such visitations before the birds became extinct. "Each morning when the people woke it was to the scraping and beating of wings, the murmurous susurration, the awful cooing babble, and the sight, to those who still possessed intact windows, of the curious and gentle faces of those creatures." Led by their priest, the residents wake early one morning to pray away the doves that are destroying their town. While they're walking the fields, an Ojibwe boy meets a girl and they run away together. Eventually they marry and, finally, return home.
Back in Pluto, the boy, Seraph Milk, becomes the lone survivor of a horrific act of violence: When a farm family is found murdered in 1911, local men round up several native Americans and lynch them. Erdrich details how, over the generations, the principals' descendants end up intertwining in unexpected and sometimes painful ways. In addition, there's a murder mystery, several love stories, and a magic violin.
Sixth-grader Evelina Harp hears the story for the first time from her grandfather, Seraph, whom she calls Mooshum. It affects her profoundly. She traces out the genealogies of the town so she can figure out who's descended from the guilty and who from the innocent.
Mooshum, whose storytelling his grandchildren regard as the next-best thing to "The Three Stooges," ranks with Nanapush among Erdrich's most vibrant creations. When he or his younger brother Shamengwa, owner of the magical violin, are around, "Doves" is Erdrich at her best.
As is often the case with Erdrich's writings, comic and tragic get tangled together. One of the funniest scenes is a funeral. But underlying it all is a deep sadness. "Over time, I came to know that the sorrow was a thing that each of them covered up according to their character – my old uncle through his passionate discipline, my mother through strict kindness and cleanly order," Evelina says. "As for my grandfather, he used the patient art of ridicule."
Erdrich, as she often does, divides the narration among several characters. Some chapters appeared as short stories in The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly magazines, but here they gain added resonance from the novel's underlying framework.
That helps with a few chapters that are heavy on melodrama and light on Mooshum, such as Evelina's stint as a worker in an insane asylum – fueled by a combination of a bad drug trip and reading too much Anaïs Nin – and her brief affair with a female inmate. Perhaps the least successful section relates the deeply creepy marriage between a cult leader and his snake-handler wife. But it's followed by one of the most beautiful stories that tells how Shamengwa's violin first came to him.
Figuring out how each segment fits into the underlying puzzle is just one of the novel's pleasures. Many lives in Pluto are shaped by the dark incidents of the past, but it's most confusing for those like Evelina, who are descended from both the killers and the victims. "History works itself out in the living," one character explains. Here Erdrich finds both mandate for her novel and a chance for redemption for at least some of its characters.
• Yvonne Zipp regularly reviews fiction for the Monitor.