Louise Erdrich: The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse

Louise Erdrich: The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse

The hero of Louise Erdrich's eloquent and conceptually daring seventh novel, The Last Report On The Miracles At Little No Horse, Father Damien Modeste has presided over the Ojibwe Indians at a North Dakota reservation for more than eight decades. Understandably withered and frail as he crests 100 years of age, Modeste remains steadfast in his regular correspondence to the Pope, even though his dutiful and deeply personal letters have never been reciprocated. Feeling the specter of death approaching, he sits down to write an agonizing confession, revealing a carefully guarded secret that he fears will shock his congregation and nullify the spiritual inroads he's made in their lives. Flash back to 1910, when the future priest appears disheveled and half-starving to farmer Berndt Vogel, who finds, on closer inspection, that the androgynous figure is unmistakably female. While Father Modeste's secret informs his every action in Last Report, it only scratches the surface of Erdrich's sprawling novel, which opens up to the harsh realities of reservation life while showing an unending capacity for secular miracles and divine grace. Nimbly jumping back and forth in time, Erdrich tells the unlikely story of Agnes DeWitt, a young piano prodigy from rural Wisconsin who spent time in a convent, but left when her love of Chopin superceded her feelings for God. After DeWitt's common-law marriage to the tender Vogel ends in tragedy, a flood of Biblical proportions sweeps her into a religious transformation. She assumes the identity of the real Father Modeste, a missionary heading north to the arid Turtle Mountain Reservation. During his long tenure with the Ojibwes, Modeste gently presides over marriages, baptisms, and confessions as the tribe contends with constant hardship. Their relationship is mutually enriching, but still founded on a lie. (Or, as Modeste calls it, "the true lie... the most sincere lie a person could tell.") Late in his/her life, the priest contends with Father Jude Miller, a literal-minded investigator sent from the Vatican to determine whether Sister Leopolda, an overzealous nun with numerous miracles to her credit, is a legitimate candidate for sainthood. Modeste's opposition raises fundamental questions about what it means to be a saint, with his life of quiet devotion standing in stark contrast to the dubious (and possibly evil) flair of Leopolda's wonders. The Last Report stands on its own merits, but it's close to Erdrich's other work in spirit, informed and deepened by characters and events from her previous Ojibwe stories. Though confusing and overwrought at times, Erdrich's ambitious novel is redeemed by evocative, often hilariously absurd set-pieces and a genuine seriousness about matters of faith. Ultimately, she creates a vivid spiritual world that transcends the flesh.

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