The latest in Louise Erdrich's chronicles of the Chippewa (Ojibwe) and Michif people of central North Dakota, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a beautiful, brilliant book that recapitulates the story of the Kashpaws and Nanapushs, the Morrisseys and Lamartines, while moving to center stage a minor character who becomes, by the book's end, central to the history of the place and people. Focussing on religion and how it touches the lives of the town of Little No Horse, Erdrich weaves new patterns into the fabric of her wonderfully imagined, magic tapestry.
The focus of the story is the priest, Father Damien Modeste, a minor figure in earlier books. In the first few pages, Erdrich reveals that the priest is a woman: Agnes Vogel née DeWitt, former Sister Cecilia of a convent in Wisconsin, widow of Berndt Vogel, lover of Chopin.
With that admixture of humor, sex, and magic that is the special flavor of Erdrich's fiction, she tells the story of the young nun who discovered music and played the piano so beautifully, so sensually, that it became a sin. With her characteristic mixture of magic realism and cartoon slapstick, Erdrich describes Cecilia's poor fellow nuns overcome with passion when they hear her Chopin. The Mother Superior bans her piano playing. Forbidden her music, she leaves the convent, carrying with her a lifelong sin: her utterly sensual love of the Polish composer.
Through a sequence of events too bizarre to summarize, she ends up married to a farmer, widowed in a bank robbery, nearly drowned in a flood and, when she finds the body of the original Father Damien, who was drowned himself on his way to Little No Horse (the main settlement on Erdrich's fictionalized Turtle Mountain reservation), deciding to masquerade as a man and replace the dead priest. So begins nearly a century of stewardship, Agnes' life as the beloved eccentric celebrator and confessor to the Catholic Indians and Méti people in her charge.
The novel re-examines and reflects stories and characters from the other books in the series, all from Father Damien's perspective. The key event of the novel is the arrival of a Papal emissary (Father Jude Miller) to investigate the claims to sainthood accumulating around the late Sister Leopolda of the convent near Little No Horse.
Many elements of the earlier novels are seen in a new light here. Lulu Lamartine, whose story was at the center of the original book, Love Medicine, appears here in a number of roles, the last of which, Father Miller's mistaken guess at Father Damien's secret, is totally unexpected. A primary thread of the plot is the story of Damien's friendship with Nanapush, the old fullblood wise man who plays a role in Tracks. The death of Napolean Morrissey is explained, and the mystery of Mary Kashpaw's parentage.
The illuminations of the other books are fun, for those of us who follow Erdrich's fiction. But like her other novels, The Last Report... can stand on its own. Without the winding tangle of stories renewed and revisited, the novel holds up as a bold and thoughtful study of sexuality. Agnes DeWitt begins as a nun. Her sensuality, expressed in her musical fingers, drives her from this calling into the arms of a crude, simple farmer who awakens her body to the meaning of those songs. After his death, she abandons her sexual self to become a priest, and the interplay of woman/man in her character rolls forward through the entire novel, right to the moment of her death, when a chance circumstance determines whether her secret is safe.
All of Erdrich's novels are about sex, in the full sense that sex is imagined by a sensual woman. The craft of her novels is the craft of cooking for a lover, and the love in these books is deep, wide, and as powerful as the Red River of the North that carries Agnes from her widowhood to a life of sacrifice and sanctity.
Erdrich takes tremendous chances in her novels. Many reviewers are baffled by them, finding solemnity where the tone is obviously farce, sentiment wher the intention is clearly humor. Her description of the accidents that lead Agnes to take a lover in defiance of her sexual persona and Father Damien's vows of celibacy is at once madly silly, touching, and passionate. The man in question finds himself attracted to "Father Damien" and agonizes over the multiple horror of falling in love with another man and a priest at that. When Agnes strips naked, he is more relieved than excited. Well, at first.
This is a book to read slowly, savouring the twists of story and time, tasting the sensory and sensuous delights that burst on the pages like thick bubbles in a fine stew. It traces a century of Chippewa life through the eyes of a beloved, loving outsider and makes of that outsider a model of charity and good living. When you are done, you will want to go back to the other books, with this one as the fork on which you will test the tune of its predecessors. And they will sing, too, still. Mothered by genius, these books sing.
Buy The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse at Amazon.com.
For a biography of Erdrich, try this page at Center for Great Plains Studies. It links to bibliographies of Erdrich's works and of scholarship as well. An excellent collection of web resources can be found at The Internet Public Library.