Sunday, October 16, 2016

61 Books: #54

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–53 are below this post.

54. Louise Erdrich, The Plague of Doves (2008) (10/16/16)
Although a mystery—the unsolved murder of a family of farmers in the community of Pluto, South Dakota, in 1897—provides a unifying thread to this book, the overall feel is that of a tapestry, made up of multiple voices, stories, fates and fortunes, joys and sorrows. There are several main first-person narrators, but they often relate others' tales as well. As Erdrich explained in an interview, "I'm trying to tell a story that goes back and forth through time, showing the influence of history on the passions and decisions of people who live in the present."

I have to admit, although I found the writing often achingly beautiful, and many of the characters believably real, the coursing about in time, the way longer stories were assembled in bits and pieces, and the many voices often proved confusing. What I am left with is a feeling not of one story, but of many lifetimes of stories—impressionistic rather than narrative. Now that I've finished, I wonder if I were to go back and read it again, would the parts add up to a more coherent whole? Possibly.

One of my favorite sections was about a fiddle—or, actually, two fiddles. And the hands they passed through. One vanishes, taken away by a broken-hearted man, but not before it inspires a young boy to embrace music; the other appears as if by magic, after a twenty-year hiatus, and ultimately is smashed to bits. The story of the fiddles is told by an old Ojibwe man named Shamengwa, who, together with his older brother, Mooshum (Seraph), was one of my favorite characters in the book.

"Few men know how to become old. Shamengwa did," Judge Bazil Antone Coutts explains midway through the book. "I admired him and studied him. I thought I'd like to grow old the way he was doing it—with a certain style. Other than his [injured] arm, he was an extremely well-made old person. Anyone could see that he had been handsome, and he still cut a graceful figure, slim and medium tall. His fine head was covered with a startling white mane of thick hair, which he was proud of. . . . He was fine-looking, yes, but there were other things about him. Shamengwa was a man of refinement who practiced clean habits. He prepared himself carefully to meet life every day . . . but yet there was more to it.
     "He played the fiddle. How he played the fiddle! Although his arm was so twisted and disfigured that his shirts had to be carefully altered and pinned on that side to accommodate the gnarled shape, yet he had agility in that arm, even strength . . .
     "Here I come to some trouble with words. The inside became the outside when Shamengwa played music. Yet inside to outside does not half sum it up. The music was more than music—at least what we are used to hearing. The music was feeling itself. The sound connected instantly with something deep and joyous. Those powerful moments of true knowledge that we have to paper over with daily life. The music tapped the back of our terrors, too. Things we'd lived through and didn't want to ever repeat. Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprising pleasures. No, we can't live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware. And this realization was in the music, somehow, or in the way Shamengwa played it."

Despite the confusion, I have a feeling some of the characters and stories of this book will be with me for quite some time. And that's a good thing.

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