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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
- New York : Harper Perennial, 2009.
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The Last Report
By louise erdrich.
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.
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.
I have a page devoted to discussion of Louise Erdrich's novels and a full review of The Antelope Wife .
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 .
The glass bottom boat of the cultural press
The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
By louise erdrich, harper collins.
Barring the most simple minded of individuals who, lacking a crumb of imagination, choose instead to breathe the rarified air of moral certitude and consistency, most people find themselves to be many people. “First I am this and then I am that,” we say to ourselves, as we put on a wide array of masks and demeanors in any given day. As multifaceted as some of R. Buck Minster Fuller’s geodesic domes, our oblique and clumsy faces are many, as are our deceptions we hide from one another and ourselves. Into the fray we stumble wildly, clumsily. We cling to one another as desperate as we can as we hope for something, anything to arrest the yaw and pitch we feel as we shudder and gaze past ourselves into the darkness. Yet, it is this darkness that provides the contrast for ourselves to preserve as much of the light that we can manage before a swift gutters it. It is this contrast that animates Louise Erdrich’s most recent novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse .
Ostensibly the story of Agnes, a lapsed Catholic who has assumed the mantle of a dead priest, Father Damien, the story is as much a meditation on our fragile identities as it is a story of faith. Faith, not in the religious sense, but the faith we have that there are transcendent acts of beauty, miracles no less profound because they are crafted by human hands and not by the divine. Human, all too human hands, such as those that play the music of Chopin or hands that trace slow patterns in the habit of prayer or along the curve of another’s body, slowly, and then faster, in the act of passion. These are all acts of desire and beauty, none of which can rival the other except by the spirit’s compulsion from deep within the heart. All are themes that Erdrich explores within this novel.
Although a thematic whole, the story’s narrative is told from two vantage points. First, there is the story of Agnes as (s)he reminisces to Father Jude, an emissary sent from the Vatican, regarding the possible canonization of a certain Sister Leopolda. At the same time, the story works forward from events that have occurred in the past in the life of Father Damien. And between these two patterns, the story moves swiftly along. Like a river with tiny eddies and whorls, the story picks up and carries characters here and then there. Reminiscent of Steinbeck’s Tortilla Flat , the themes that intersect reveal strong characters and subtle stories that stand alone, richly, by themselves and yet contribute so much to the larger piece of work.
For most of the time, the setting remains Little No Horse, a reservation populated by the Ojibwe (it should be noted that Ms. Erdrich herself is part Ojibwe). It is here that Father Damien Modest arrives and begins the arduous task of learning the routines and stories of the Ojibwe as well as wrestling with his own tenuous grasp of faith. Sometimes he is the fool, a victim of the Ojibwe’s mistrust of these pale skinned interlopers, and at other times he remains the sage as he sees past the subterfuge the Ojibwe display to him and others. He begins to better understand the pain and desire that animates life and ties individuals together. As is revealed time and time again, he finds that the dictates of the heart are no simple thing. At the outset, this lesson becomes clear when Father Damien is misled by Nanapush, the clever drunk and trickster who uses Damien in his plot to gather some of his cousin Kashpaw’s wives for his own. Upon leaving Kashpaw thoroughly distraught and at a loss as to what he should do, we find him considering each of his wives and deciding which one he should keep.
“ Kashpaw pressed his knuckles to his eyes. A man’s heart was generous, giving, like a skin that could hold more and more water. But there was always a limit, the last drop, a sorrow that could burst it• Kashpaw grasped his pipe tenderly and touched the warm red bowl to the stone of his forehead. Why did a man have to love so much? The stone cooled in his fingers while he let his mind wander through all of the sorrows of possible answers ” (100-101).
The claims drawn on the human heart remain indelible. These claims once staked, who has the right to be a claim jumper. An intentional metaphor and one that Erdrich knowingly uses for as the outer physical world of the Ojibwe is reduced and destroyed by white settlers so too is their interior world colonized by strangers with foreign ways and a strange god.
As Father Damien comes to a deeper understanding of the Ojibwe world, he is startled and dismayed at the raw hunger and greed that Pauline Puyat, soon to be Sister Leopolda shows for the faith. Gradually, each becomes the other•s double. As Father Damien becomes more indulgent and sympathetic to the customs of the Ojibwe, Pauline grows increasingly inflexible and intolerant. As Father Damien comes to know the pains of the human heart and the gnawing hunger for love and grace, Pauline shrinks and becomes shrew like, intolerant and grasping at the “true faith” to wield it like a weapon.
What remains then, at the novel’s conclusion is the question of identity. Who was the saint? Who had the greater capacity for faith? Are our lives greater than the sum of the many parts we happen to play? Father Damien struggles on past faith and grief, loss and joy to a resolution. Simply by not being the person he was supposed to be, Father Damien has exerted a far greater influence than the “true” Father Damien could have hoped. And who is to say who is the true Father Damien. Or, who is Agnes. At its finest, this novel serves as a reminder that the legacy of a person, the sum of our being is greater than questions of identity or gender. The crux of our identity remains the ineffable that cannot be boiled down or summed up. It can no more be boiled down than that first ray of light gracing the horizon can be measured or the seasons can be gated in. As Agnes says to herself in the novel, “Our souls are tethered by the love of things that cannot last.” This tether, the preciousness of life in all its transitoriness, is what the novel comes to celebrate.
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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse A Novel (Book) : Erdrich, Louise : A story of suspect miracles, tests of faith, and the corrosive and redemptive power of secrecy
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The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. 3.9 of 5 stars. Toni B. ( Twintoni) reviewed The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse on 8/4/2006 + 133 more book reviews