In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Louise Erdrich has written a book that transports the reader not only to another time, but also to a field where all could dwell with increased respect and understanding.
Agnes is the main character, an inventive person of strong character who found a way to deal with living in a time when women had few choices—the early 1900s. Timing, opportunity and a desire to leave her old situation behind allowed her to step into the identity of Father Damien Modeste, a priest who was expected shortly at a remote Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota called Little No Horse. The narrative takes us over nearly a century of what it was like to have a foot planted in both worlds—a woman living as a man—ministering in one culture yet not intruding with another, developing roots and living with a sporadic fear of one day being found out. Would everything Father Damien built in his beloved community, all trust and love given to him, be discarded if Agnes was discovered?
The telling of this chronicle comes about through the investigation of one Sister Leopolda who is up for sainthood. When the church’s emissary comes to interview Father Damien, we have the opportunity to witness a life well lived, intricately woven and deeply connected to community. Not the life of Sister Leopolda but that of Father Damien.
Equally important is the telling of the Obijwe traditions, the sometimes funny and bizarre antics of medicine man Nanapush and the difficulties often endured. Peppered throughout are enormous gems of wisdom. A couple of examples are shown here.
…even careful plans cannot accommodate or foresee all the tricks of creation…
…We see the seasons pass, the moons fatten and go dark, infants grow to old men, but this is not time. We see the water strike against the shore and with each wave we say a moment has passed, but this is not time. Inside, we feel our strength go from a baby’s weakness to a youth’s strength to a man’s endurance to the weakness of a baby again, but this is not time, either, nor are your whiteman’s clocks and bells, nor the sun rising and the sun going down. These things are not time… (Nanapush)
It’s also punctuated with Father Damien’s frequent, unanswered notes to the Pope such as this one.
Perhaps we are no more than spores on the breath of God, perhaps our life is just one exhalation. One breath. If God pauses just a moment to ruminate before taking in a new breath, we see. In that calm cessation, we see. All I’ve ever wanted to do is see.
Don’t bother with a reply.
The characters in this novel are so rich and their stories so resonant, there’s a part of me that secretly hopes the writings are based on fact. They have an underlying inherent truth. Life is indeed layers of complexity, with all its attendant emotions. Here it’s delivered to us through Agnes and Father Damien, their voices intermingled. This book is much more than entertainment, and it’s one of my all-time favorites.
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