Imagined places and characters: Louise Erdrich’s Recasting of “The Plague of Doves”

Mustache Maude

One of Louise Erdrich’s first published stories was entitled “The True Story of Mustache Maude.” It appeared in 1984 in Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies. The “true story” is a comic narrative about Clara Belle Rose, who later came to be known as Mustache Maude. Born in Minnesota in 1873, Clara ran away from home when she was fifteen. By age twenty-three she had set up her own saloon and gambling hall in Winona, Emmons County, just across the Missouri River from Fort Yates, the agency headquarters of the Standing Rock Sioux Indian reservation. Winona’s only reason to exist was to serve the pleasure-needs of the soldiers at Fort Yates and the Indians they were supposed to keep in line. Maude married a frontier adventurer named Ott Black.

Most of Erdrich’s story is Mustache Maude’s first-person narrative of her theft of a blue sow from a European countess. It would not concern us here except that Erdrich reintroduces Mustache Maude two decades later in her 2004 New Yorker short story “The Plague of Doves.” In that story Maude struts into literature once again, and once again with a stolen pig. Now living in the western North Dakota Badlands, she steals the pig from Mooshum and Junesse, two twelve-year-old fugitives from their controlling Ojibwe relatives further to the east. Maude and her husband Ott lovingly raise the two children until Mooshum and Junesse are old enough to marry. To celebrate their marriage, Maude throws a party and invites the neighbors. They resent her having such a party for a couple of Indians, and not long afterwards, when a neighbor-woman is murdered, the neighbors come to Maude’s ranch to lynch Mooshum. Even though the murdered woman’s husband has suspiciously run off, and even though no evidence whatever connects Mooshum to the crime, the neighbors seek immediate revenge and blame the young newlywed for no other reason than that he is “the nearest available Indian” (“PD” 96). The mobsters ride up to Maude and Ott’s ranch and demand that she send out “the goddamn Indian” (“PD” 97).

She refuses. To protect Mooshum, Maude shoots one of the would-be lynchers and drives off the rest. Then, knowing that they will return, she sends Mooshum and Junesse back to their home reservation.

That New Yorker story became, in somewhat revised form, the first chapter of Erdrich’s novel The Plague of Doves. Most of the scores of revisions that Erdrich made in converting the short story into the opening chapter of the novel are minor. The narrator who is unnamed in the story is named Evelina Harp in the novel. Instead of being the great-granddaughter of Mooshum and Junesse, she becomes in the novel their granddaughter. The boy whom Evelina has a crush on and kisses is named Merlin Koppin in the story, but Corwin Peace in the novel. In the story “our dentist” (“PD” 95) fits the narrator with braces, but in the novel “our off-reservation dentist in the town of Pluto” (PD 13) does it. In the story the local Catholic church is St. Gabriel’s Church, “named for the God’s messenger, the archangel who currently serves as the patron saint of telecommunications workers” (“PD” 97). In the novel it is Saint Joseph’s Church, “named for the carpenter who believed his wife, reared a son not his own, and is revered as the patron saint of our bold and passionate people, the Metis” (PD 19). In the story Mustache Maude shoots the man who demands that she send Mooshum out to be lynched, but in the novel her husband Ott Black shoots him.

The most important change, however, is in the passage explaining why the white men wanted to lynch “the nearest available Indian” for a crime he did not commit. In the New Yorker story Erdrich’s narrator explains why the men in the lynch mob would be so eager to accuse an innocent Indian:

What […] was truly resented, was the fact that Maude had thrown an elaborate shindig for a couple of Indians. Or half-breeds. It didn’t matter which. These were uncertain times in North Dakota. People’s nerves were still shot over what had happened to Custer, and every few years there occurred a lynching. Just a few years before, the remains of five men had been found, still strung from trees, supposedly the victims of a vigilante party led by Flopping Bill Cantrell. Some time later, an entire family was murdered and three Indians were caught by a mob and hanged for maybe doing it, including a boy named Paul Holy Track, who was only thirteen. (“PD” 96)

The three instances that the narrator mentions in the story are all factual. Custer was defeated by Indians at the Little Bighorn in 1876. Flopping Bill Cantrell and his vigilantes, frustrated at the inability of the Montana legal system to arrest and punish cattle rustlers and horse thieves, did in the summer of 1885 lynch some thirty men they had determined were guilty. And “some time later,” in 1897, Paul Holy Track and two other Indians were indeed “caught by a mob and hanged for maybe” murdering an entire family. The purpose of the three factual examples was to explain why Mustache Maude’s neighbors were so nervous about the threat of Indians that they thought it proper to become, like Flopping Bill Cantrell, their own law and order.

In the novel the corresponding passage reads simply:

[W]hat was truly resented and what fostered an undercurrent of suspicion, was the fact that Maude had thrown a big and elaborate shindig for a couple of Indians. Or half-breeds. It didn’t matter which. This was western North Dakota at the turn of the last century. Even years later, when an entire family was murdered outside Pluto, four Indians including a boy called Holy Track were blamed and caught by a mob. (PD 17)

In her novel Erdrich dropped the allusions to Custer and Cantrell, probably because she came to see that they did not really show very clearly why the neighbors resented Maude’s celebrating the marriage of two young Indians. The Custer battle had been a full quarter- century earlier, and did not involve danger to civilians. None of Cantrell’s gang had been

Indians. Erdrich replaced those two examples with the vague explanation that the shindig had “fostered an undercurrent of suspicion,” and let it go at that.

Of specific interest is the change Erdrich made in the reference to Paul Holy Track and the murder of a family. For the novel she drops the first name “Paul” and puts the lynching further off in the future. It happened not, as in the story, “some time later” than the Custer and Cantrell incidents, but “years later” than the wedding. We find out in a subsequent chapter the specific year: “[I]n 1911, when a family was murdered savagely on a farm […] just to the west, a posse mob tore after a wandering bunch of our people” (PD 92).

Between the time she published “The Plague of Doves” in 2004 and the time she published The Plague of Doves in 2008, the Spicer family murders had ceased to be for Erdrich an historical example to explain why Mustache Maude’s neighbors’ “nerves were shot.” It had become the imagined centerpiece of a novel. Liberated from history, Erdrich was free to write fiction, free to imagine places and characters.

Her places and characters are imagined, yes, but not entirely so. Indeed, Erdrich’s genius lies in her almost seamless interlacing of fact and fiction, history and imagination.