'Plague of Doves,' Multigenerational Murder Mystery Louise Erdrich, who has written 12 novels and volumes of poetry, is known for her masterful storytelling. The author talks about her new book, The Plague of Doves, which focuses on a senseless, horrific crime and a Native American reservation in North Dakota.
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'Plague of Doves,' Multigenerational Murder Mystery

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'Plague of Doves,' Multigenerational Murder Mystery

'Plague of Doves,' Multigenerational Murder Mystery

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Over the decades Louise Erdrich's bestselling and critically acclaimed works of fiction have formed a kind of crazy, genealogical quilt. Imagine her novels and stories as brightly colored squares, the characters and plots as threads that weave them together. The books are full of family trees and stories of life among the Native and the new Americans on and off the reservations of the upper Midwest.

A new square is added when her novel "A Plague of Doves" is published. It began as a short story. Louise Erdrich is in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul. Welcome back to the program. It's nice to talk to you again.

Ms. LOUISE ERDRICH (Author, "A Plague of Doves"): It's nice to talk to you too. My pleasure.

HANSEN: I want to start with just the title of this: "A Plague of Doves." Plague is the correct collective for doves but it's the first story in what becomes a family saga that is told by a girl and her grandfather. But tell the story, the very first one, that first appeared in the New Yorker that forms the title.

Ms. ERDRICH: The title actually came out of a very old clipping. And the incident that begins the book was an actual incident. There was a plague of doves, and the congregation of a Catholic church was gathered in order to try and walk through the fields praying and dissuading the doves from eating all of the crops. This was in North Dakota.

It haunted me as some of the other historical pieces in this book did. And it took a long time to put them together but this particular story also includes one of my favorite characters from North Dakota history. Her name is Mustache Maude. She was a real woman; she was a real wrestler; she was a real rancher. And she did pick up a pig from time to time.

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: Mustache Maude.

Ms. ERDRICH: True. She'd wrestle pigs. And I always loved her. There's a great pictures of her in some of the historical books I'd read and I just couldn't resist somehow getting her into a book. I'd always been waiting for this moment.

HANSEN: Really. But she doesn't show up again. I mean, you know, that's the first story and you're setting the stage for what we learn about Evelina Harp and...

Ms. ERDRICH: Right.

HANSEN: ...her grandfather Mooshum.

Ms. ERDRICH: Well, thank God these books are all related because maybe I can get her back in somewhere. I don't know...

HANSEN: That's true.

Ms. ERDRICH: ...if she...

(Soundbite of laughter)

HANSEN: That's true. So, we have this story and we have this incident that you based the first short story and then that expanded into the novel. There's another story and it is really a vortex of this particular one. It's a lynching that happened in, was it 1911. And it affects every character in the book.

Ms. ERDRICH: Yes. And that is from another true event. And that event was so powerful for me that it stayed with me for 20 years.

HANSEN: What was the basic story?

Ms. ERDRICH: The basic story was there was a brutal murder of a farm family in Emmons County, North Dakota. There were three Native American men hanged - one of them was only 13, was just a boy. I came across a picture of this hanging not long ago. It was sold on the Internet and they'd used a beef windless. It's a tremendously troubling event in my mind.

HANSEN: What is a beef windless did you say?

Ms. ERDRICH: A beef windless is a place where you hang beef after you've killed the cow and you're going to butcher it.

HANSEN: So you were able, then, to take this story and create your characters around it because one of them is Mooshum, the grandfather, who is hung but not hung to die. He's cut down.

Ms. ERDRICH: Right.

HANSEN: And then the relationships that exist between the mixed-blood families, the tribal families and the white families all around this land near the town of Pluto that straddles the border, you know, between the reservation and outside the reservation. So, it becomes - did it a metaphor for everything that you were trying to tell about not only early history but contemporary history as well?

Ms. ERDRICH: And what I'm trying to do is tell a story that goes back and forth through time and that shows the influence of history on the passions and decisions of people who live in the present.

HANSEN: You talk about all the strange - it was strange that lives were lost in the town's formation. It is the same with all desperate enterprises that involve boundaries we place upon the earth by drawing a line and defending it . We seem to think we have mastered something. What the earth swallows and absorbs, even those who manage to form a country or reservation.

Ms. ERDRICH: I'd hoped that something like that resonated today in our hopeless grip that nationalism has upon so many of our countries and has upon so many of us. It all does come to nothing in the end, and that's the truth of history.

HANSEN: And there's a chapter called The Kindred and it's set on the land and it has to do with the followers of a rather charismatic preacher named Billy Peace. And, you know, as I was reading it, I couldn't help but think about the story that's happening now with the children and the families in West Texas. Are you following that at all?

Ms. ERDRICH: Oh, sure I am.

HANSEN: Yeah. Does your story compare? I mean, you do have a woman with young children who, you know, ends up escaping from this sect in a wonderful scene in the diner where her kids are eating sundaes for the first time. But it's amazing that you've come up with a story to tell about a similar kind of occurrence on that same piece of land.

Ms. ERDRICH: It may not be so odd. It seems to me that every few years, you know, the United States discovers some kind of unbelievable cult, you know, and with unbelievable practices and charismatic leaders and people following, doing things that nobody can believe. It's part of our cultural life it seems to discover and rediscover these sorts of enclaves of what people generally think of as madness but within seem, you know, I guess, quite self-contained and sane.

HANSEN: Isn't that interesting? I mean, your stories really are all connected. I can see, you know, you having a character and all of the sudden you realize he's related or she's related to someone you had, you know, several years ago. That's what I meant in my introduction to you about this kind of quilt. Where do you think you do your best writing or your best thinking?

Ms. ERDRICH: I have a little room up in my attic and I have a lot of food up there. I'm not starving up there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERDRICH: And it's warm. And it's where I go. You know, it's just a little plain room.

HANSEN: Are you always working on the next project when the current one is coming out to the public?

Ms. ERDRICH: I always am; I always have something else to go to. I would be so bereft if I didn't. You know, the other place I work is when I get trapped in a motel, sometimes when I'm on the road. You're almost desperate to get away mentally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. ERDRICH: I've written some of my best stuff. So that's when it happens.

HANSEN: Louise Erdrich, her new novel, "A Plague of Doves," is published by Harper Collins, and she joined us in the studios of Minnesota Public Radio inst. Paul. Thank you so much.

Ms. ERDRICH: Oh, thank you. It's good to talk to you.

(Soundbite of music)

HANSEN: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen.

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