One of the keen pleasures of modern fiction is the work of Louise Erdrich, who uses her considerable talent to reconstruct the shattered lives of American Indians in the twentieth century. Beginning with Love Medicine (1984), she created a series of novels that explored the rich inner lives of the inhabitants of a fictional Indian reservation. The seventh volume in the series, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (2001), concerns the life of Father Damien's decades-long career as the reservation's resident priest. What makes that work so engrossing is the fact that it deals with the often bizarre experiences of a cross-dressing woman who passes herself off as a Roman Catholic priest.
Although the premise may at first seem absurd, in Erdrich's able hands “Father” Damien became one of the great characters of modern fiction—a singular fusion of pathos and the human comedy. Some may dismiss cross-dressing as little more than a writer's caprice, that it is part of a larger strategy of generating more conflict, both within and between characters, in order to intensify reader interest. In a larger context, however, transvestism generates meanings that are central to Erdrich's work. On the simplest level it is a disguise whose purpose is to conceal the true gender of the wearer—a kind of mask that one presents to society. The means by which transvestism is realized is clothing, an important marker not only of sex but also of social status and one's particular culture. This holds true whether it is the cleric's cassock or the sartorial splendor of the nabob.
It is this play upon the tension between outward appearance and the inner core of one's being that figures so prominently in Erdrich's eighth novel in the series, Four Souls. It concerns Fleur Pillager, an Ojibwe who appeared in such earlier volumes in the series as Tracks (1988). Fleur leaves her reservation as part of what appears to be a simple revenge plot: to kill the white man who robbed her of her land, John James Mauser. One would expect Erdrich to construct the tale to unfold in this manner, allowing the young woman to strike back at the man who took the land of her ancestors and proceeded to strip it bare. Instead, Erdrich complicates both the character and the plot and in so doing transforms a straightforward tale of vengeance into a profound meditation upon two vastly different cultures and how they interact. This is a journey of almost epic proportions, one that leads Fleur from the abject poverty of the reservation to the immense opulence of the urban elite.
Appropriately, Fleur renames herself “Four Souls” at the beginning of this quest as a means of honoring her mother. Erdrich accentuates this idea of an epic journey through the telling details she reveals about her heroine. Fleur does not just travel to Mauser's mansion in Minneapolis, she walks. Being dirt poor, she would not have had sufficient funds to pay for the trip; however, given her considerable stealth, she could easily have slipped aboard a passing train without notice. By rejecting this convenience, Erdrich allows the reader to witness the ferocious determination of this character.
Fleur is virtually one with nature, and her long trek by foot reveals her close association with the soil. She has no difficulty in living off the land and appears to relish her meals of muskrats, mud hens, and cattail roots. When she wears out her footwear, she steals a pair of boots and proceeds to kill and consume the dog who attempts to stop her. All of this serves to drive home the deadly seriousness of Fleur's quest, that she will stop at nothing in order to achieve it. Erdrich captures this notion of Fleur as hunter when this character finally spots the object of her journey, the mansion Mauser built in part from the wood taken from her land. She is described as having “a haunted, white, wolf grin.”
Expatriate American writer Henry James once broadly defined romanticism as a kind of sleight of hand in which the author somehow slips the improbable into a plot unnoticed. It is no less true of Erdrich. What are the odds that a disheveled, homeless woman lacking references would find immediate employment in the home of one of the wealthiest families in Minneapolis? Fleur arrives at the precise moment when the household is in dire need of a laundress because of the owner's mountain of sweat-stained sheets. With a writer of lesser talent, such an improbable situation would surely strain the reader's credulity. In Erdrich's hands, one is...
(The entire section is 1863 words.)