Several Louise Erdrich books sit half-read on my shelves — hardcovers plucked hopefully from remainder piles, casually attempted, callously discarded. So I picked up Erdrich’s latest novel, “The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse,” with low expectations. But this somewhat loosely told but quite evocative and moving story surprised me.
The novel follows the story of Agnes DeWitt, a rural Wisconsin girl turned nun, turned musical prodigy, turned farm wife, turned … priest — and, quite possibly, saint.
Agnes’ life is an intricate pattern of discovery and loss, of discovery in loss. Discovering the sexual joy of channeling Chopin at the piano, she loses her claim to life in the convent, and finds love in the arms of a humble farmer. Discovering evil in the form of a bank robber called the Actor, she loses the man she loves and part of her memory. She finds comfort in music until her beloved piano is swallowed up in a flood of biblical proportions and it, too, is lost, and with it the life and identity she has created.
Displaced and guided by hunger and a peculiarly sexual commitment to Christ (he appears to her in an erotic dream, feeds her soup and warms her naked body with a highly charged embrace), Agnes assumes the form of Father Damien Modeste and lives out her destiny as a priest on the Ojibwe reservation known as Little No Horse.
Embodying both a lie and a pure sort of truth, Father Damien finds himself slowly woven into the fabric of life on the reservation. As his understanding of its people — their beliefs, their relationships, their concerns — deepens, so does his involvement in their lives. Baptizing, teaching the doctrine of the Catholic Church, taking confessions, he changes them — but not nearly so much as they alter him.
Yet while Father Damien’s story is the thread that holds Erdrich’s novel together, it is but one strand in its complex design. Erdrich also weaves in the colorful sagas of reservation characters like Nanapush, a tough-talking, sex-obsessed wise old Ojibwe with whom Father Damien forms a special bond, and Lulu, the stubborn beauty to whom Father Damien becomes something of a father. These ancillary stories provide intriguing glimpses into the Ojibwe culture and constitute the novel’s brightest and most touching patches.
“The Last Report” will not anger the gods with its perfection. While many characters are deftly rendered, others seem oddly imprecise. Although the language in some sections is evocative and pure, other passages are clunky, overwrought and downright confusing. But while the threads of Erdrich’s work seem to grow a bit tangled here and there, viewed from a bit of a distance and taken in as a whole, the novel’s flaws become part of the intricate pattern. And the overall effect — here rough-hewn, there finely stitched — is a pleasing revelation, one that seduces you with storytelling and makes you think twice about faith and sacrifice, truth and concealment, and the essence of self.
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