by Louise Erdrich
In Louise Erdrich’s book The Sentence, one character tells another about a sentence believed to kill the reader. After thinking about it for a second she says, “I wish I could write a sentence like that.” So far, I haven’t died from reading her books, but Erdirch’s writing is powerful and moving. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a prime example of how her stories waft into your soul and make themselves at home for a time.
The story focuses on Father Damien, the lone priest at an Anishinaabe reservation in North Dakota called Little No Horse. Father Damien, however —
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— is actually a woman named Agnes DeWitt. Agnes isn’t a trans character, but Erdrich does touch on indigenous beliefs and ideas regarding gender as Agnes navigates between herself and Father Damien.
The story bounces back and forth between Agnes/Father Damien’s beginning at Little No Horse in the early 1900s as a young priest and the present (roughly the 1990s). As Father Damien nears 100 years of age, the Vatican sends another priest to Little No Horse. His job is to determine whether one of the Native nuns, Pauline Puyat/Sister Leopolda, is eligible for canonization. This forces Father Damien to wrestle with his secrets and what he can or should share. Both story lines are intriguing, but I definitely enjoyed the earlier parts of Father Damien/Agnes DeWitt’s life more.
Erdrich weaves in a lot of themes and ideas throughout the book. Obviously, gender/gender identity plays a significant role. While Agnes embodies a male persona as Father Damien, she embraces her woman-ness as Agnes in the quiet, empty spaces of her life. But many of Father Damien’s Ojibwe friends recognize that there is something different about him; unlike Euro-Americans, however, they have a background and tradition that allows them to articulate and understand that difference.
Erdrich also gorgeously explores the mysteries of faith. Throughout his tenure at Little No Horse, Father Damien writes letter after letter to each Pope for nearly a century. Yet until the Vatican sends a priest to investigate the miracles of Sister Leopolda, he receives no answer. It suggested the very nature of prayer – petitions and questions and begging for guidance to which there is never an answer. Agnes/Father Damien have a few instances in which they feel to be in direct contact with the Divine – and yet, it is only a moment followed by decades of silence.
Despite his position as a missionary, ordered to bring the Word of God to the “heathens” of the reservation, Father Damien quickly finds himself accepting Anishinaabe beliefs. Often he finds those beliefs to be of greater value and comfort than Catholic dogma. While Catholicism remains a grounding system for Agnes and Father Damien alike, they see the value of Anishinaabe traditions and spirituality and see no reason why those should be cast aside. As other priests flit in and out of Little No Horse, they seem scandalized at Father Damien’s potential blasphemy. And yet, they also stand in awe of his faith.
Through all of this, Erdrich includes a variety of important historical events, from the 1918 flu pandemic to the horrific legacy of forced boarding schools for Native children to the starvation that regularly occurred on the reservations as a result of the U.S. failing to live up to its treaty obligations. It is an incredible story of how people continue to survive and thrive, despite all the trauma, all the pain, all the hurt. And not only do they survive, but they continue to love, to believe, to live. Yet the story does not downplay the very real, long-lasting effects of those traumas either. Each character must find a way to live with or drown in those hardships as well.
I cannot recommend Erdrich’s books enough. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a great place to start. Although my understanding is that some of her earlier books include some of the same characters, I have yet to read them. I never felt like I was missing something as I read this one though. Go and enjoy.