Vol 1, Num 4 :: 2002.10.25 — 2002.11.07
Louise Erdrich’s newest novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, continues to fill out the story of her usual cast of Native American characters. A mixed-blood member of the Turtle Mountain Band of the Ojibwe, Erdrich never strays far from her cultural heritage and as I read more Native American literature, I realize that an inextricable part of that heritage is a profound awareness of the spirit world.
Erdrich never fails to incorporate the magical, mystical, spiritual side of life into her intricate stories, and The Last Report is no exception. I find that, although her books would never be found in a Christian bookstore, the theology she presents is often far more refreshing than that of literature typically labeled “inspirational.” Her God, though not always predictably loving, is the big and mysterious source of abundant and meaningful life. Her characters never doubt God’s existence, but constantly struggle to put a face on God and find a human source for the burden of love they feel.
In The Last Report, Erdrich tells the story of Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic priest whose parish is a remote corner of an Ojibwe reservation. The present day story involves an investigation into the potential sainthood of one of the late nuns of the parish and it is through the secret memory and the oral history of Father Damien that a larger story is told. In the end, we readers know far more than the priest who has come to do research on Sister Leopolda, the supposed saint.
In the darkest corner of Father Damien’s memory lies the secret that he is a woman, a former nun named Agnes DeWitt. This disguise is at the heart of a book filled with ambiguities and paradoxes, but Erdrich masterfully escorts her readers through the convictions of her characters without judging them. They are recognizably, heart-breakingly human. At one point, Agnes (as Father Damien) falls in love with another priest who was sent to study with her and they have a secret sexual relationship. In counting the ways they are sinning by the traditional standards of the church, Father Gregory cannot reconcile the peace he feels in his lover’s arms with the idea that his actions could cut him off from God forever. “If we are cut off from God by sinning?,” he says, “why do I feel so close to God when I touch you in this darkness, in this cloud?” Erdrich’s characters continuously ask unanswerable questions about life’s paradoxes, but find peace in the idea of a larger wisdom than their own.
While the book defies the traditional church in many ways, it is not a didactic treatise against organized religion. Instead, the story focuses on the efforts of various characters to navigate the inevitable gray areas of life. As Paul says, we only see a dim version of the truth as a result of our imperfection and Erdrich punctuates the inefficient search for truth with moments of mystical clarity. For example, Agnes is spared twice from death, the second time it seems by Christ Himself. This bodily salvation is what convinces her to take on the identity of a priest who died in the flood that tried to kill her. Though this calling necessitates a lie, she never questions her role as a priest.
What she sees as her purpose on the reservation is only made clear to her many years later when she is visited for a second time by the devil in the form of a black dog. As the dog taunts her for forgiving her penitents too easily, she is “assured that her Father Damien had done the right thing in absolving all who asked for forgiveness. She saw that forgiveness as a long, slow, soaking rain he had caused to fall on the dry hearts of sinners.”
But Father Damien not only exposes God’s grace to the people; he receives God’s grace through the Native Americans. Through the unwavering “pagan,” Nanapush, Damien learns to see God in all things—in the appearance of Christ to save Agnes from the flood as well as in the taste and color of carrots.
There are other themes in The Last Report that are as richly played out as that of religion—music, sexuality, gender, and family to name a few. All of Erdrich’s books are true nourishment to the mind that loves fiction. But this is not to say that her books are without flaws. The story of Sister Leopolda seems to be a distraction in many ways from the compelling story of Father Damien and, while it fills in some holes left in other books, Damien’s story would have been sufficient. The question that Father Damien faces at the end of his life, to tell all and reveal Leopolda as a murderess or to hide details to protect his own secrets, does not provide the suspense that it could, especially in comparison to the overwhelming fullness of Father Damien’s history.
I’ll be the first to admit that I have a distinct weakness for the novels of Louise Erdrich. However, I don’t think I exaggerate in calling The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse a beautiful, rich tale woven with surprising humor and profound despair, while presenting just the right balance of inspired revelations and unanswered questions. And if the exploration of religion doesn’t tantalize you enough, perhaps you’ll be lured by the flatulent death and resurrection (and re-resurrection) of Nanapush after being tied to the antlers of an aroused moose for twenty-four hours.
It’s all part of that “gray area” where Erdrich loves to wander.