The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse
by Louise Erdrich
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.