So much of Louise Erdrich’s fiction involves a conversation between present and past, and nowhere is this more evident than among her rich stock of American Indian characters, the people of Ojibwa lineage who populate the upper-Midwestern small towns and reservations of her many novels. For these people, history transcends academics, and genealogy runs deeper than names and dates on a family tree. Their past is a world of ancestral memory—a living place of legend and lessons, kept alive and made accessible over time through oral dissemination. But Erdrich frequently imbues even the first-hand recollections of her Ojibwa characters with a mythic, transcendental aspect, particularly those of the elderly.
In her 2008 novel, The Plague of Doves, the author introduces nonagenarian Seraph Milk, better known throughout the story by his Ojibwa moniker, “Mooshum,” which means maternal grandfather. Mooshum shares many stories of his younger years with his granddaughter, Evelina, one of the novel’s principal first-person narrators. Often, they reflect his loveable rascality, for—in the manner of Nanapush, the more familiar Ojibwa elder of Erdrich’s novels—Mooshum can be mischievous, irreverent, and amusingly libidinous. His colorful tales are sought out by Evelina and her brother, who consider him their “favorite indoor entertainment, next to television.”
But also like Nanapush, Mooshum carries the wisdom of age; he too has seen first-hand the effects of racial oppression, alcoholism, and other cultural cancers on his people. Consequently, even his most ribald stories convey certain lessons that, in their own informal ways, help to foster a continuing knowledge of vanishing Ojibwa traditions.
Erdrich provides readers with one remembrance, in which Mooshum tells his grandchildren about a vigilante-style hanging of four Ojibwa men that occurred during the first years of the twentieth century. The men had been accused of slaughtering a local white family. In actuality, they had merely discovered the bodies but were later assumed to have carried out the crime, partly because there were no other clear suspects, but also, conveniently, because they were Indians. As readers discover, Mooshum himself was one of the men strung up that day. However, for reasons that remain unclear at first, he alone was cut down before strangling to death.
The discovery of the murdered family and subsequent hangings are included in a chapter titled, “Holy Track,” which was the nickname of one of the condemned Ojibwa—a young man whose consumptive mother had once had small wooden crosses sown onto the soles of his boots to keep him from contracting her illness. In this chapter, author Erdrich delineates between the fictional “present” and “past” by shifting the narrative voice back and forth from first-person to third, respectively. The present scene is set in Evelina’s childhood home—where Mooshum also lives—and Evelina personally narrates it from her point of view: All thoughts and perceptions are hers alone, and any comments that Mooshum makes in this present context—whether or not it is related to his story—are presented in quotation marks and attributed to him.
The action that takes place in the fictional past, however, is told in a more formal, third-person point-of-view. This appears to have been a deliberate choice of the author, who might as easily have simply transferred the first-person narrator role from Evelina to Mooshum. Whether intentional or not, it is a wise decision to craft it in third-person, for it allows readers to experience the event as a fully-formed tale rather than a witness testimony: a “real-life” story, to be sure, but one that is adorned with mythic touches and resonant, often haunting imagery. And, like myths the world over, this method of presentation conveys lessons regarding a variety of virtues and human behaviors, from the ignoble to the heroic. Moreover, it sheds light on aspects of spirituality—in particular, a specific culture’s expectation of what comes after death.
The fact that Mooshum ended up in the tragic situation in the first place can be credited to bad luck arising from poor choices. In the “present” scene that introduces the tale, he admits to Evelina that he and a drinking cohort, Cuthbert Peace, were “unhappily sober” that day—that is, out of money—when they happened upon young Holy Track and his uncle, Asiginak, along a country road. The boy and his uncle were carrying handmade baskets to sell, and Mooshum and Cuthbert hoped to “persuade the old man to spare enough … money to get his old friends drunk.” The uncle refused, and the quibbling continued as the four traveled the road together, eventually reaching the farm where they discovered the bodies of the slain Lochren family, and also one survivor—a baby girl.
The actual discovery, being part of the tale, is told in third-person. Louise Erdrich, who writes poetry as well as fiction, marshals her considerable skills to set this grisly scene at the Lochren farm, using dense imagery to depict a place recently touched by a force of evil.
“Let’s not go any closer,” Asiginak says at the outset. “The devil has this place.” And so it seems. The front door of the farmhouse is spattered with blood. In the yard a man lays prone, his back “blasted out” by a shotgun. His hands clutch the grass where he “died crawling”; and his head faces forward, “still staring” at the bodies of his two young sons just ahead of him, who lay curled together as though asleep. From a barn comes the horrible, “resonant bawls” of cows that have gone too long without milking. And then, from inside the house, the men hear a baby crying. Cuthbert runs in to retrieve her, feeds her from a cow’s udder and insists on taking her into town. But the others, cognizant of their status among the white locals, dissuade him, and instead devise a plan to anonymously notify the sheriff of the baby’s whereabouts. They brush away their footprints, especially those from Holy Track’s readily-identifiable boots, and leave the property.
But over the next few days—it is revealed later in the novel—Mooshum gets “stinking drunk” and leaks word of their having discovering the bodies. Presuming the Ojibwa men guilty of murder, a posse of incensed white locals then captures all four and condemns them without trial.
Erdrich continues the potent imagery of the third-person tale, depicting a scene in which the white vigilantes search for a suitable hanging tree, all the while hauling their captives around in a wagon. Readers observe the sheriff and another local man trying in vain to stop the hanging party, not so much on humanitarian grounds, but rather in an appeal to prosecute the Indians legally. They see one white boy in the group, Johann Vogeli, crying over the injustice of it all—then attacking his own father, who had just struck him for shedding tears.
And readers also witness the range of emotions the condemned Indians show. At first, they plead their innocence, revealing an understandable terror over the prospect of hanging. But once they realize there is no way out of their undeserved predicament, they evoke heroic stoicism. Some even find room for humor. In one instance, Cuthbert jokes about his own ugliness, rationalizing that his death “won’t be such a loss to the women.” And sometime later, when he announces he wants to sing his “death song,” Asiginak cracks, “I hope you can remember it before you shit your pants.”
Holy Track and Mooshum mostly sit in numb silence on their way to the place of execution. And Mooshum is pointedly ignored by the others, because by now they realize that he had drunkenly spilled the news to the white men. When a sturdy oak is finally chosen, however, Holy Track begins to engage with his uncle and Cuthbert, who advise him against fighting the rope, and instruct him on how to give his spirit name to whomever he first encounters on the “other side”—the Ojibwa spirit world. “Your mama and deydey will be waiting for you there,” Cuthbert tells him. “Don’t be afraid.”
When four nooses are thrown over the oak’s strongest limb, the two older Indians begin loudly to sing their death songs. Holy Track tries to sing too, but, in the end, he can only manage to hum the tune of a lullaby his mother had often sung to him. And when the horses lurch forward, pulling the wagon away and leaving the condemn Indians to swing, Cuthbert and Asiginak continue, as best they can, to sing as they strangle.
In this passage, Louise Erdrich provides one of the most dramatic touches to the tale, by bringing readers into a much closer third-person point-of-view—that of young Holy Track’s final perceptions. “Behind shut eyes, he was seized by black fear,” Erdrich writes,
…until he heard his mother say, Open your eyes, and he stared into the dusty blue. Then it was better. The little wisps of clouds … resolved into wings and they swept across the sky now, faster and faster.
As readers later discover, at some point soon after this, the white men cut Mooshum’s rope and he drops to the ground, unconscious—spared the fate of his three fellows but now charged with the responsibility of preserving and sharing the story of their unwarranted execution. And for the rest of his life, Mooshum does precisely that, though he is never able shake the image he beheld the moment he came to under the oak tree: the body of Holy Track dangling above him—“walking, on air,” still wearing his boots with the crosses affixed to the soles.