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'Doves,' vibrant and lyrical, is a communion with spirits

"The Plague of Doves," by Louise Erdrich, hardcover, 320 pages, HarperCollins, April 2008, $25.95. - - - Louise Erdrich is a shaman. She communes with spirits from other times, channels their messages, reveals their mysteries and layers the prese...

"The Plague of Doves," by Louise Erdrich, hardcover, 320 pages, HarperCollins, April 2008, $25.95.

- - -

Louise Erdrich is a shaman. She communes with spirits from other times, channels their messages, reveals their mysteries and layers the present with the past. "The Plague of Doves," her 11th novel, is yet another of her superb enchantments.

Set in North Dakota, near a town called Pluto, "Doves" flies back and forth from the early 20th century to recent times.

Peopled by American Indians, French and German settlers and their mixed-blood descendants (Erdrich is one), the stories take place on an Ojibwe reservation, hardscrabble farms and in the dying town. All involve people linked by blood, marriage, passion or murder -- sometimes all of them -- and events play out, over and over in ever-changing ways, down the years.

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The novel opens with a stunning scene: led by a Catholic priest from the local tribe, parishioners, some dressed in Sunday best, link arms under the relentless sun to form a human chain. The chain sweeps the prairie in a desperate effort to drive off the multitudes of doves. These rapacious destroyers of crops, themselves soon to be hunted to extinction, are beautiful in the singular, terrifying in flocks. The dove appears in guises throughout the book: emblem of nature, symbol of the Holy Spirit, harbinger of troubles.

Central to the plot is a lynching in 1911, in which a group of white men, outraged by the murder of a farm family, seize a passing group of innocent young Indian men and hang them from an ancient oak. This event braids characters in a skein of implacable memories, delayed retribution, hard-won forgiveness and couplings that blend heritages, offering the possibility of reconciliation. The story of the lynching and its aftermath is told many times, by many voices, evolving with each telling and growing more complex.

Vivid characters

Erdrich, as always, paints her characters vividly and gives them names that demand attention: Cuthbert and Lafayette Peace, Seraph "Mooshum" Milk, Neve Harp, Marn Wolde, Antone Bazil Coutts, Mustache Maud Black.

Among the most compelling is Mooshum, sole survivor of the lynching, who grows old but remains ever young, a trickster, womanizer and sly deflator of religious dogma.

Evelina Harp, his granddaughter, discovers, to her amazement, her greatest loves: a wise nun with a distorted face and a girl at a psychiatric hospital with a stunning body and a disordered mind.

Billy Peace, once a charismatic, beautiful young man, becomes an obscenely fat and increasingly dangerous preacher who dominates his wife, Marn, their children and "the kindred," the followers of his cult. Marn, a farm girl who can summon prophetic visions, finds strength and subtlety in the serpents she learns to handle, grows to love and will employ to gain freedom.

Erdrich moves sure-footedly from the dramatic to the humorous to the mystical.

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Powerful magic

Since the publication of her first book, "Love Medicine," and her subsequent sagas of Plains peoples, Erdrich has demonstrated a rare ability to create vibrant, wholly original characters and to describe nature in prose so lyrical it becomes poetry. "The Plague of Doves" is proof that she has yet to exhaust her powerful magic.

Goldberg is The Courant's books editor.

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