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Erdrich bases new novel on lynching

The American Indian writer drew from the 1897 murders of three North Dakota Indians.

June 28, 2008|Jeff Baenen | Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS -- In her new novel, "The Plague of Doves," Louise Erdrich explores a dark secret of North Dakota's history: the lynching of three American Indians, one of them a 13-year-old boy, in 1897.

"I wanted to try and do some sort of justice to that event," Erdrich says about the killings in her home state. "It was such a wrenching event in my mind."

Erdrich's response was to write about what happens "when vengeance is done . . . but no justice is done." The result was "The Plague of Doves," which has won rave reviews from critics and is in its third printing since being published in April.

In "The Plague of Doves," three Indians are lynched after a farm family is murdered on the edge of a North Dakota reservation in 1911. All three are innocent; the real killer, revealed at the end of the book, escapes detection and punishment.

Erdrich named one of the lynching victims in her book Paul Holy Track, after the 13-year-old victim of the historic lynching.

"You know 13-year-olds -- they're children. How can you lynch a child?" Erdrich asks in amazement during an interview in a sandwich shop next to her bookstore, BirchBark Books, in Minneapolis.

Erdrich, of European and Ojibwe descent, sees parallels between the hunger for vengeance that followed the murders of six members of a North Dakota family in Emmons County more than a century ago and the aftermath of Sept. 11.

"I think vengeance, rather than sitting back and allowing justice to be done over time, is really so much a part of our history. And unfortunately, it's part of our present, as well," Erdrich said.

"This is common after any sort of horrific event. There's a terrible thirst for someone to blame, for someone to be caught and punished right away, and immediately. We saw that after 9/11. I felt the same thing in my own heart. . . . And it became twisted around until we're in this terrible situation we are in now."

In the real-life Emmons County lynching, a mob of 40 men stormed the jail, dragged off three defendants with ropes around their necks and hanged them from a beef windlass used to suspend cattle carcasses. One of the lynching victims was a French Indian man who had been granted a new trial by the North Dakota Supreme Court. The others were Holy Track and another full-blooded Indian, according to a New York Times account of the lynching.

No one in the lynch mob was prosecuted, and two other suspects, jailed miles away in Bismarck, N.D., were released after the lynching.

Erdrich, 54, grew up in Wahpeton, N.D., and is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa in northern North Dakota. Like her character Evelina in "The Plague of Doves," Erdrich is of mixed descent -- her father, Ralph Erdrich, is German American and her mother, Rita Gourneau Erdrich, is French Ojibwe.

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