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

The Survivor

None of the Spicers survived. One of the Lochrens did. Erdrich imagined a Lochren who was not killed, a seven-month-old baby whose identity we do not learn until the last chapter. Even in providing a survivor, Erdrich probably relied on some research. She might well have drawn on the factual story of another North Dakota family murder. On April 22, 1920, Jacob Wolf, his wife, his hired hand, and five of his six children were murdered. The main weapon was a shotgun. A nine-month old baby girl survived and was raised by a neighbor. Another neighboring farmer named Henry Layer was arrested and, after he confessed, was sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. He died in jail a few years later of heart failure. For an extended chronicle of the Wolf murders, see Vernon Keel’s 2010 The Murdered Family: Mystery of the Wolf Family Murders. Erdrich could not have read this book before she wrote The Plague of Doves, but she could easily have found references to the Wolf family murders. The New York Times, for example, carried the story on May 20, 1920, but Erdrich might have read one of several later accounts such as this one by Dan Feldner in the Minot Daily News for October 1, 2008:

BABY IN CRADLE ONLY SURVIVOR OF 1920 MASS MURDER

One of the most horrific mass killings in North Dakota history happened April 22, 1920, on the Wolf farm three miles north of Turtle Lake.

John Kraft, a neighbor, had found the eight bodies two days after the murder when he noticed the family wash hanging on an outside line in soggy weather. When he entered the farmyard, Kraft was attracted by the sound of pigs rooting in a nearby barn. As he stepped into a leanto of the barn, Kraft discovered the bodies of Jacob Wolf, 41, and two of his daughters, Maria, 10, and Edna, 8, half covered by dirt and hay. Seconds later he gazed horror-stricken through a trapdoor leading into the basement of the house at five more mangled, mutilated bodies. They included Jacob Wolf’s wife, Beatta 35, and three other daughters, Bertha, 13; Lydia, 6; and Martha, 3. Across the body of Beatta Wolf and the girls was another victim, Jacob Hofer, 13, a chore boy and the son of a neighbor.

The only survivor was the baby girl, Emma, almost nine months old. Kraft found her in a small bedroom in a cradle lightly clad and weak from hunger and cold.

Emma was raised by her aunt and uncle until they died when she was about twelve. A Turtle Lake grocer named Emil Haas eventually was appointed her guardian until she graduated from high school.

If Cordelia Lochren was in some ways based on Emma Wolf, Erdrich imagined her as quite a different character. Unlike Emma, Cordelia goes to college and then to medical school before returning to Pluto to become a doctor. She has a long-term affair with an Indian man named Antone Bazil Coutts, marries a white land developer, and becomes the self-appointed Pluto town historian. One of the important trajectories in Erdrich’s novel is Cordelia’s reluctant realization that the Indians who were lynched for the murder of her family were innocent. That brings us to another large change Erdrich made in imagining the events and people involved in the murder of a North Dakota family.

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