Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 426
Louise Erdrich's novel The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a strange book. Is the gender-bending nun protagonist just a con man, or is she emblematic of the Nature-nurture relationship Native Americans supposedly have with their land? We don't really find out, but that's not the point. The life of Father Damien, like the life of Sister Leopolda before her, isn't a symbol. It just is. It is Little No Horse, and Agnes becomes the place just as surely as she becomes Father Damien. Her assumption of the dead man's identity looks awfully self-serving, a chance to escape her farm-to-convent upbringing, a chance to break free, literally. In choosing a life of deceit, though, Agnes inadvertently becomes an accomplice in the lifelong con of Sister Leopolda. It's a curious example of the process by which our landscapes and identities become interdependent, which Simon Schama analyzed beautifully in his book, Landscape and Memory. That work was mostly about art, and this one is mostly about religion, if you believe religion is a great sleight of hand by which one society, or even one period of history, can impose narratives on another.
Ways of seeing, ways of being, arise out of our environment, our landscape. These are recorded in our art, but they're also encoded in our religion. That's why Father Damien is so strange. Who would choose such a life of fakery, except someone trading a small uninteresting lie for a much bigger one? That's the key to Little No Horse and the supposed miracles that Sister Leopolda perpetrated there. It's a lie. Be careful, though. The Ojibwa aren't the lie, despite the larger-than-life characters on the reservation. The lie is that "we" can be redeemed by "saving" "them," or that we can save ourselves by the power of our faith alone. The real truth in the novel isn't that white people are evil, that religion is fake, or that the Ojibwa are somehow more authentic than others. It's that you're never really independent of your world, despite what you might think. The vast, lifelong conspiracies of Sister Leopolda and Father Damien are, if anything, less expansive and less pernicious than the epochal conceit that we can go anywhere, do anything, and be what we want. The Ojibwa, standing in here for oppressed people everywhere, all the time, at least retain the dignity of not choosing the lie. It was done to them, in history and here, by two ersatz, well-meaning Catholics. It's the rest of us that really should take a lesson.