Saint Marie Characters
by Louise Erdrich

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Saint Marie Characters

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The main character, fourteen-year-old Marie Lazarre, narrates the tale of her near transformation to Catholicism and sainthood fifty years after the event. Resisting her Native-American ancestry, Marie considers her skin "white" and seeks to escape her seemingly ill-fated life on the reservation through inclusion in the Sacred Heart Convent. In classes taught Old Testament style by Sister Leopolda, who later sponsors Marie at the convent, the nun recognizes Marie's desire for acceptance. She names her propensity for daydreaming as the work of the "Dark One," thus inspiring Marie to accept her (and Christ's) teachings.

In her efforts to reject the familiar, Marie begins to see her heritage as inherently tainted. Her layering of Native-American tradition with evil impels her to purge herself of both to achieve sainthood. As a result, Sister Leopolda acts as both mentor and enemy for Marie, and the young girl continues to struggle between her love and hatred for Leopolda, paralleling her struggle between acceptance by the Anglo-American community and resistance to its traditions.

Sister Leopolda's power over Marie takes a dramatic turn when Leopolda oversteps the boundaries of instruction and falls prey to motives of malice and revenge. After burning Marie with boiling water, hitting her head with a poker, and stabbing her hand with a bread fork, Sister Leopolda lies to the sisters about the events leading to Marie's loss of consciousness. The nun attributes the stab wound to the work of God, claiming the mark to be stigmata, a miracle. Thus, when Marie wakes up and sees the sisters kneeling before her, she believes that she has achieved sainthood, and her first order of business is to settle the score with Sister Leopolda. Yet, when Marie looks into Leopolda's eyes, she sees a pitiful and weak person, and despite her revulsion of these feelings, Marie forgives the nun.

Marie sees hypocrisy in both Leopolda's and her own actions in their attempts to manipulate power. At the same time, this "miracle" of the stigmata underscores the difference between the belief systems of Native Americans and Catholics. As a "saint," Marie knows that she is neither divine nor pure, but merely human—made of "dust." Consequently, Marie rejects the convent. Her final message to herself to "Rise up and walk" echoes Christ's transforming power while it speaks to her rejection of Christian tradition.