Faith, Fate and Father Damien
“Miracles are propitious accidents, the natural causes of which are too complicated to be readily understood.”
Often, a book’s title is a cryptic reference to a small event or occurrence in a novel that is a key unlocking a novel’s meaning. In other instances, it happens to be a small isolated microcosm of the novel’s larger themes. Though as I approached this novel I looked skeptically at the long name, wondering what the novel would entail, I soon discovered that this title was just what it proclaimed itself to be the final report to the Vatican by a priest concerning the goings-on at the Indian reservation that is his parish.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is the seventh in a series of works by Louise Erdich that chronicles life on an Ojibwe reservation called Little No Horse. This latest opens with its protagonist, Father Damien Modeste, in old age, “in the thrall of the grape” and anxious that his longtime secret will be revealed upon his death - namely that he is actually Agnes Dewitt, a woman who has masqueraded for decades as a man of the cloth after stealing a dead priest’s identity. Further complicating this situation is the presence of Father Jude Miller, sent by the Vatican to investigate the possible canonization of a local nun, Sister Leopolda, a stigmatic with dark secrets in her past, of which Father Damien is uncomfortably aware.
Interwoven with the present-day conflict is the bizarre history of Agnes Dewitt’s transformation into Father Damien and her absorption into the Ojibwe tribe, a culture to which she came in 1912 as an outsider under desperate and strange circumstances. With this new beginning in Agnes’s life comes the hope and purpose that leads to lifelong service under the guise of Father Damien on Little No Horse. Over the course of his time on the reservation, Father Damien becomes deeply involved with the lives of his flock, not only as a their confessor and counselor, but as a good friend. In the process, he becomes a living repository of the complex history of the tribe and its many members.
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse melds together a hundred years of history, which Erdich has chronicled in smaller measure in previous works. The Father Damien we meet here played a small role in an earlier novel, Tracks, which detailed the early story of Pauline Puyat, who became the demented Sister Leopolda. This latest work reaches back into the tales of Pauline Puyat’s mother and father, filling in yet more pieces of the immense puzzle that Erdich has devoted thirteen years and numerous novels to creating.
The unique storytelling ability of Erdrich is not lost in this most recent epic brilliantly depicting the world of the reservation. Erdich’s lyrical descriptive power propels the reader into the world she creates, where skin has a smoky scent, love medicine works, and the mysterious connectedness of all the characters is written about so casually as to seem quotidian.
The imagery is powerful and unforgettable - a vivid world where floods are described as “gray soup,” a woman’s bound breasts as “small, withered, modest as folded flowers,” pansies as having “the faces of spoiled babies,” and horses as having coats of “brutal velvet.” Wild events proliferate—women in white gowns ride out floods on the top of a grand piano and are ministered to by a highly erotic Christ-figure, priests are visited by the devil in the form of a black dog with its paw in a bowl of soup, death by flatulence is a possibility, and miracles of all sorts are everyday occurrences.
The sacred and the profane, ecstasy and desolation, the miraculous and the mundane, Jesus and the Ojibwe spirits, faith and eroticism, fantasy and reality, the holy and the demonic, Native American mysticism and Roman Catholic dogma, the sublime and the absurd all blend in this intricately plotted and complex novel that has been called “Manichean” in its presentation of disparate elements - a term the author admitted, in a published interview, she finds “enthralling” as applied to the extreme contrasts portrayed in the book.
Erdich’s spellbinding poetics, the richness of the Ojibwe tradition and the harsh, haunting landscape of the Dakotas make this another memorable addition to the author’s already impressive body of work chronicling reservation life and history. Unlike some authors currently writing about present-day Native Americans, Erdich successfully captures the essence of our shared humanity in an unpredictable and capricious world, and the tenacious hope for a better future that endures in the face of devastating circumstances.
Because this is part of a continuing history of Little No Horse and its many characters, it is probably not a good selection for a first-time Erdich reader. Start at the beginning with Erdrich’s first works and work up to it.