The gun jammed on the last shot and the baby stood holding the crib rail, eyes wild, bawling.

With these, the first words of Louise Erdrich's elegant whodunit "The Plague of Doves," we are catapulted into a scene in which blood darkens the dust and splatters the walls after a horrific mass murder in rural North Dakota. With one gruesome, arresting paragraph, Erdrich has us hooked.

The crime, which takes place in 1911 near Pluto, a fictional town "dwindling without grace" in a part of North Dakota sparsely populated by whites and Ojibwe, is not solved until the final pages, though clues are sprinkled throughout the story. In between, Erdrich braids one heckuva multigenerational story of memorable characters whose stories and blood, over time, converge.

As she has done in many previous novels, Erdrich tells the story via multiple narrators. We hear from Evelina, a perceptive if erratic young college student who has listened closely through the years to her merry, tippling grandfather, Mooshum, who as a young man witnessed and might have been a player in the bloodbath. And from Antone Bazil Coutts, a modern-era judge stone in love with Evelina's Aunt Geraldine, who knows all the tribal secrets. Coutts tells the story of his grandfather, explorer Joseph Coutts, whose life was saved by Metis guides Henri and Lafayette Peace, whose grandson, Cuthbert Peace, was a player in the 1911 drama. Cuthbert's nephew, cult leader Billy, and Billy's nephew, juvenile delinquent Corwin, play key roles in their own generational dramas. Then we hear from Marn Wolde, the snake-wielding wife of Billy Peace, and lastly from Doctor Cordelia Lochren, who is -- just wait till you hear who she is, or was!

Got all that?

This reviewer found it helpful to keep a scorecard of the characters and their blood ties, much as one might do with a Faulkner novel. In addition, she took these notes: "Doves, everywhere then nowhere -- passenger pigeons?" "Violin at murder scene, violin in canoe." "Last name Peace significant?" "Mooshum -- victim or killer?" "Did Neva Harp sleep with her kidnapper?" "Sex and snakes!?" "Bees -- symbolism." "Theological underpinnings, keep track!"

Believe it or not, it all makes sense in the end.

Unlike its labyrinthine plot, the story's themes can be discussed without giving away plot twists. Antone Coutts lays out one key theme: "Nothing that happens, nothing, is not connected here by blood." And another in describing the spooky mood a musician's playing evokes: "Shredded imaginings, unadmitted longings, fear and also surprising pleasures. No, we can't live at that pitch. But every so often something shatters like ice and we are in the river of our existence. We are aware."

"The Plague of Doves" is a representational fictional slice of American history, that grand garbled story in which good and evil, guilt and innocence, love and hate have become tangled up in events and genealogies. Beautifully written and frankly far more arresting than Erdrich's past two novels, it succeeds as a quintessential American story more than it does as a whodunit, page-turner though it is.

When we finally find out who did the bloody 1911 deed, we're struck with the desire to have read more about the killer and a motive. Erdrich might have written a chapter or two about that maddeningly fascinating person, instead of veering off into two particularly disjointed story lines, one about a religious cult and a second about a lesbian affair in a mental institution.

But in Erdrich, even uneven digressions are poetically rendered. She has the power to make you laugh uproariously and shred your heart in the space of a page. "The Plague of Doves" is a bit of a mess at times, but a beautiful and highly memorable one, rather like our own histories.

Pamela Miller is a night metro editor at the Star Tribune.