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

Holy Track

Erdrich clearly tilts the tables in favor of the Indians. They become in her novel the innocent victims of a posse of white thugs eager to exact immediate revenge by lynching Indians—any Indians. In The Plague of Doves Holy Track is a good-hearted Christian boy of thirteen, the age of innocent pre-puberty. Although Paul Holy Track was often called a “boy” in the factual accounts of the events in Emmons County, in none of those accounts was he so young. He was usually said to be in his late teens or early twenties at the time of the Spicer murders. According to LaDonna Brave Bull Allard, tribal historian at Standing Rock, Oye Waken, the Dakota name for Holy Track, was born in 1878, which would have made him nineteen at the time of the murders. It is possible that in stating Holy Track’s age as thirteen, Erdrich was confusing him with Jacob Hofer, the Wolf’s hired chore boy, who was thirteen when he was killed.

It is interesting that in her next novel, The Round House, winner of National Book Award, Erdrich makes has the novel narrated by the thirteen-year-old Joe Coutts, the son of Antone Coutts and his wife Geraldine. Joe learns that Holy Track had been buried in the cemetery in Pluto. Joe specifically mentions Holy Track’s age:

It was where Mooshum’s brother Severine, who had briefly served at the church as priest, was buried in a plot specially marked off by white-painted brick. One of the three who were lynched by a mob in Hoopdance were also buried there—they’d taken the boy’s body there because he was only thirteen. My age. And hanged. Mooshum remembered it. (RH 99)

Erdrich makes her Holy Track not only younger but more pious. He walks his tuberculosis-ridden mother to church each day, memorizes the Latin mass, and is given crosses for “memorizing the long prayers” (PD 58). At his dying mother’s urging, he allows Mooshum to nail the crosses to the soles of his boots so that “evil will not cross your tracks” (PD 58). These crosses and the tracks they leave as he walks give him the English name Holy Track.

By recasting Holy Track as a guiltless victim, “an innocent boy” (PD 58), Erdrich emphasizes the brutality of the white lynchers. It is impossible not to feel sympathy for young Holy Track as he tries to sing the Ojibwe death song with his uncle, “but could only hum to himself the tuneless lullaby that his mother had always used to sing him to sleep” (PD 79). By invoking the image of an infant being lulled to sleep by his mother, Erdrich emphasizes the brutality of his execution:

The boy was too light for death to give him an easy time of it.

He slowly choked as he kicked air and spun. He heard it when Cuthbert, then his uncle, stopped singing and gurgling. Behind his shut eyes, he was seized by black fear, until he heard his mother say, Open your eyes, and he stared into the dusty blue. Then it was better. The little wisps of clouds, way up high, had resolved into wings and they swept across the sky now, faster and faster. (PD 79)

Young Holy Track’s innocence is emphasized also by his having become a favorite of the reservation priest, Father Severine Milk, and by his decision to become a priest himself. Erdrich’s Holy Track is an almost Christ-like boy. Unlike his factual counterpart, he never confesses—indeed, he has nothing to confess—or implicates his fellow Indians. On the contrary, he could have escaped capture, but he sacrifices his own life by stepping forward in response to his great-uncle’s plea for companionship in death.