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

Who done it?

Since Asiginak, Holy Track, and Cuthbert Peace are in The Plague of Doves absolutely not guilty of the murders for which they are accused and summarily lynched, that change, by leaving open the question of who was guilty of murdering the Lochrens, transforms Erdrich’s tale into a murder mystery. Since we know right off that the lynched Indians did not commit murder the five Lochrens, we cannot help wondering as we read on who did.

There is truth to Margaret Noori’s assessment that “the series of dark tales that makes up The Plague of Doves begins with a bloody murder whose perpetrator is not revealed until the very end of the novel, when the reader no longer cares about

who committed the crime” (Noori 12). In the final chapter of The Plague of Doves Erdrich reveals that the actual murderer was a white man named Warren Wolde. Many years after the murders, Warren Wolde had been declared insane and sent off to a state hospital, where he had lived out his days in protected peace and quiet. We learn by the end of the novel that after he had murdered the Lochrens he had stood quietly by while his angry and impulsive fellow-citizens, on no evidence whatever, hanged from a tree on his own land, and for a crime he himself had committed, three innocent Indians. His fellow-citizens assume that Warren Wolde is innocent just because he is white. They assume the three Indians are guilty just because they are Indians.

In imagining the murderer to be an insane white man who dies in a mental institution, Erdrich may have been drawing on one of the traditions of the Wolf family murders. By that tradition, the real murderer was not Henry Layer, the man sentenced to life in prison at hard labor, but an insane man named Olav Borgsson (see The Murdered Family 313–33). Like Warren Wolde, Olav Borgsson was never accused, brought to trial, or punished. He died in a mental institution. We do not know that Erdrich knew about Olav Borgsson, but if she did she may have recast him as Warren Wolde.

We do know, however, that Erdrich knew something about the events surrounding the Spicer family murders, and in her novel imagined them quite differently. As an accomplished writer of fiction, Erdrich has every right to imagine any places and characters she likes. In The Plague of Doves she imagines those places and characters brilliantly. It need not trouble us that she shifts the blame for the murders of the Lochren family off the Indians and onto the whites. Even in its many departures from the actual events at Winona and Williamsport, The Plague of Doves is in the broadest sense a realistic portrayal of the white men as the true villains. She might invoke here the words of another Indian storyteller, Chief Bromden, the Indian narrator of Ken Kesey’s 1962 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. At the start of the novel Bromden says, “But it’s the truth, even if it didn’t happen.” Erdrich tells the truth, even if the Holy Track story that she tells in The Plague of Doves never happened. It is the truth because, like most of the white men of the factual Winona, the white men of Erdrich’s fictional Pluto are racist. They are too eager to break the laws they pretend to uphold, too eager to punish Indians merely because they are Indians.

One of the lynchers in the fictional Hoopdance is named William Hotchkiss.

Surely Erdrich selected the name Hotchkiss to remind her readers of the repeating guns used at Wounded Knee to mow down children as innocent as her character Holy Track. In The Plague of Doves William Hotchkiss carries with him his own private cannon, and he does not hesitate to use it against the innocent and unarmed Indians of Pluto: “William Hotchkiss craned forward over his saddle. He was carrying an old repeating rifle” (PD 73). Just before he is hanged, Cuthbert Peace, his face all bloody from his having been dragged on the ground behind one of his captor’s horses, makes a final, desperate, futile plea to the white men who are about to murder him. He appeals to their sense of justice and mercy, to their sense of a common humanity with the Indians they are about to murder:

“We found those people already dead,” cried Cuthbert, stirring Holy Track from a drowsy stupor. Mooshum was listening to everything. “We found them, but we did not kill them. We milked the cows for them and we fed the baby. I, Cuthbert, fed the baby! We are not your bad kind of Indians! Those are south of here.”

“Don’t talk bad of the Bwaanag,” said Asiginak. “They adopted me.”

Cuthbert ignored him and badgered the white men. “Us, we are just like you!”

“Just like us!” Hotchkiss leaned over and slammed the butt of his rifle against Cuthbert’s head. “Not hardly.” (PD 74–75)

Not hardly, indeed. The Indians in The Plague of Doves are far more human and humane than the local white mobsters who are so eager to attribute brutality to the Indians that they cannot see their own brutality, cannot see that in murdering two men named Asiginak and Cuthbert Peace and a boy named Holy Track they are restaging the Hotchkiss-gun  massacre at Wounded Knee.

A delicious irony is to be found in Erdrich’s decision to have Cuthbert refer

to the Indians “south of here” as the “bad kind of Indians.” Cuthbert Peace is referring to the Dakota Indians of Standing Rock. The Ojibwe word for these Indians is “Bwanaag.” Asiginak rises to the defense of the Bwaanag by reminding his friend that he, Asiginak, had once been shown mercy and humanity by them. The mobsters, of course, do not pause to hear either him or Cuthbert Peace.

Most who read about the factual Spicer murders will come to feel at least some sympathy for the real Indians of Standing Rock who struggled to survive a harsh 1897 winter. Most will feel at least some sympathy for the two or three or four young Indian men who got drunk on whiskey sold to them illegally by greedy white saloon-keepers in Winona. Most will feel some sympathy for the Indians who, emboldened by whiskey, suddenly saw a way to strike back. Most will feel at least some sympathy for the Indian men who were denied by an illegal lynching the right to a legally sanctioned trial by their peers.  Erdrich retold their story in such a way that all readers will feel sympathy for the lynch victims.