The seventh novel by Louise Erdrich to center on the inhabitants of the Ozhibi’iganan reservation, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse explores the life of Father Damien Modeste and his lifelong commitment to the Ojibwe tribe at Little No Horse. Those who are familiar with the preceding novels in the series will again delight in Erdrich’s gifts as a storyteller and her unerring ability to create vivid characters. Like the playwright August Wilson, whose works chart the African American experience in the twentieth century, Erdrich eschews the great world events in favor of the circumscribed lives of her characters. That is, she takes a marginalized and nearly forgotten minority group and brings the lives of its members front and center. Erdrich’s novel does deal with efforts by unscrupulous whites to gain control of reservation land, but her emphasis is less on the actual loss of land than the consequences of that dispossession. Put in another way, Erdrich’s novels constitute a response to the question of how Native Americans survived the twentieth century as vital human beings despite the ravages of disease, starvation, and neglect. For Erdrich, as well as for her characters, storytelling is the key to survival.
Ostensibly, the story concerns Father Damien Modeste, a Roman Catholic priest of immense age who has lived among the Ojibwe as their spiritual guide for over eighty years. As the novel opens, the old priest is writing a letter to the pope regarding the miracles attributed to the late Sister Leopolda, a practice he has performed for many decades without a response. What saves this seemingly purposeless existence in a desolate parish is Erdrich’s deft use of revelations, with one intended for the pope and the other reserved only for the reader. The first is Father Damien’s admission that he has concealed the identity of a murderer, an intriguing development that introduces a mystery. It is only after the old priest puts down his pen and undresses that the reader learns an even deeper secret that Damien has kept for many years, the fact that “he” is a woman. Erdrich, with the consummate skill of an accomplished writer, strategically deploys these revelations both to shock readers and to pique their interest. It is an effective device, for readers feel the need to know more about this engaging character.
Erdrich also draws the reader into the story through her narrative approach. She could have executed a straightforward historical narrative, one in which the readers would learn what it would be like to dwell in this desolate part of North Dakota in the early years of the twentieth century. Based upon solid research, such a novel could yield valuable insights into an unjustly neglected part of American history. On the other hand, Erdrich could have fashioned a contemporary tale rather than an historical narrative, perhaps one in which the past persistently echoes into the present. Erdrich, though, complicates and enriches her text through a multiplicity of narrative techniques, perhaps the only approach that does justice to the contradictory nature of relations between Native Americans and whites. As already mentioned, there is the story that old Father Damien creates for the pope through his letters. This contemporary part of the narrative takes place in 1996, and it is clear the old priest is nearing the end of his life. The narrative then oscillates back and forth between the present and the past, beginning in 1910, where the reader learns how a young novice nun finds her way into the priesthood. Erdrich further complicates the text by interweaving additional narratives, both in the story told in the past and the one that unfolds in the present. As the reader learns of the young priest among the Ojibwe, Nanapush, a scheming old man, uses stories to achieve his own ends. In the present, there is the story of Father Jude Miller, who has come to the reservation to investigate the miracles attributed to the late Sister Leopolda. If this challenging method were left in unskilled hands, the narrative could easily degenerate into a series of interesting but discrete elements. It is to Erdrich’s credit that she can fuse such diverse materials as Native American myths and the old priest’s letters to the pope into an integrated whole.
Crucial to the success of her approach is the character of Father Damien, whose life is traced in the novel’s four sections. “The Transformation of Agnes,” tells of Sister Cecilia (born Agnes DeWitt), whose sensual love of music is so disruptive that she is forced to leave the convent in 1910. The episode is significant for what it reveals about the central character. On the surface, it clearly indicates the conflict...
(The entire section is 1928 words.)