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 —
***POTENTIAL MINOR SPOILER ALERT IF YOU DO NOT WANT TO KNOW ANYTHING ABOUT THE BOOK. THIS NEXT PIECE OF INFORMATION IS ON THE BACK BLURB OF THE BOOK AND REVEALED IN THE FIRST FEW PAGES. BUT IF YOU WANT TO GO IN COMPLETELY BLIND, CEASE READING THIS REVIEW, GO READ THE FIRST CHAPTER, AND THEN YOU CAN COME BACK. WHILE YOU GET THIS BOOK, YOU COULD ALSO CHECK OUT THESE BOOKS BY NATIVE AUTHORS THAT WERE PREVIOUSLY REVIEWED HERE. DO NOT SCROLL ANY FURTHER THOUGH UNTIL YOU’RE READY.***
— 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.
Books are essential. Books can help put into words the thoughts and feelings with which we struggle. They can help us learn, see, empathize. Cry, laugh, scream, shout with rage. They remind us we are not alone.
One of the reasons I buy physical copies of all the books I read is because I never know when a situation might arise that calls for a re-read and I want to have immediate access to them when that occurs.
Such was the case with this. I hadn’t planned to re-read this particular book. In fact, I probably haven’t read it since junior high, when I read nearly all of Elie Wiesel’s writings that I could get my hands on. I may have re-read it in college. But regardless, I bought it a long time ago and it has traveled with me ever since.
Uvalde drove me to grab it off the shelf and read it without stopping. This was not a planned read; this will not be a regular review. I don’t know why Uvalde was the breaking point. Certainly, Sandy Hook left me devastated. I was a junior in high school when Columbine happened; there have been innumerable school shootings since then (to say nothing mass shootings outside of school buildings). I’m a historian – I’ve studied all sorts of atrocities. And yet…
And yet. Another example of Wiesel’s influence. I remembered reading that it was his favorite two words. But I couldn’t remember why, exactly. And I couldn’t remember where exactly I’d read it. So back to my bookshelf I went, pulled out the first volume of Elie Wiesel’s memoirs (All Rivers Run to the Sea) and on page 16 found what I was looking for:
“And yet. Those are my two favorite words, applicable to every situation, be it happy or bleak. The sun is rising? And yet it will set. A night of anguish? And yet it too, will pass. The important thing is to shun resignation, to refuse to wallow in sterile fatalism.”
But in the aftermath of Buffalo and Uvalde, The Trial of Godwas what I needed. It is a three-act play, based on events Wiesel witnessed in the kingdom of night, in the unremitting darkness of Auschwitz, where three rabbis convened a hearing in their barracks and put God on trial. They handed down their verdict: guilty of crimes against creation and humankind. And then they prayed.
Wiesel struggled with how to relate this event. Eventually, he realized he could not keep it set in Auschwitz. Of course, human history has plenty of other atrocities to draw from, particularly when it comes to anti-Jewish atrocities. And thus, the Trial is relocated to Ukraine in 1649 (which of course is now again the scene of a different set of crimes against humanity).
The play opens with three Jewish performers, Mendel, Avrémel, and Yankel, entering an inn and ordering drinks. It is Purim, the Jewish holiday celebrating Queen Esther’s success in saving the Jewish population, as written in the Book of Esther. It is a celebration of joy and life, filled with masks and costumes and music and drinking and plays. The performers drink and then tell the innkeeper that they cannot pay. But never fear, they assure him, he will be paid. They will perform for the Jews of this fine town, who will be delighted and fill his coffers.
Maria, the Christian barmaid, looks at them in horror as Berish, the Jewish innkeeper, laughs cynically. For Berish and his daughter Hanna are the only remaining Jews in this town – a pogrom a year or so before slaughtered all the rest. And Hanna is no longer completely here, her mind cracked after enduring a night of rape. The town is empty. The performers, no strangers to pogroms themselves, are horrified. And Berish – Berish has no interest in God or anyone who would speak of Him or His supposed mercy.
The heat of Berish’s righteous anger burns through the pages and echoes through the ages:
“I don’t know what it is, but I know that it is an angry truth! Yes, I’m boiling with anger! Don’t ask me why, you know why! If you don’t, I do! But you do know why. You are in Shamgorod, you must know. To mention God’s mercy in Shamgorod is an insult. Speak of His cruelty. … I want to understand why He is giving strength to the killers and nothing but tears and the shame of helplessness to the victims.”
Mendel and the other performs try to calm him, pointing out that it is “man [who] steals and kills,” but Berish isn’t having it. “Men and women are being beaten, tortured and killed…True, they are victims of men, but the killers kill in His name! Not all? True, but numbers are unimportant. Let one killer kill for His glory and He is guilty. Every man who suffers or causes suffering, every woman who is raped, every child who is tormented implicates Him. What, you need more? A hundred or a thousand? Listen, either He is responsible or He is not. If He is, let’s judge Him. And if He is not, let Him stop judging us.”
This gives Berish an idea. You will perform a play, he tells the performers, only he shall choose its subject: let us put God on trial. And so by Act II, the parts are handed out. The three performers will be the Court. Maria will be the audience. Berish, of course, will be the prosecutor. But then they encounter a problem. No one wants to be the defense attorney.
“Is there no one here – or anywhere – to plead the cause of the Almighty King of the universe?” asks Mendel, one of the judges. “Poor, poor King of Kings,” responds Avrémel, another judge. “Poor King who needs His servants’ pity.”
“He needs it? He won’t get it! Not from me! He had no pity for me, why should I have for him.” Berish is ready for his role. And then, from the shadows, a Stranger appears and volunteers to serve as the defense attorney.
We have seen him once or twice before, but he has not spoken and our actors did not seem to notice him. But they do now. Maria recognizes him instantly and begs the court not to let him take the role, begs them not to listen to a single word. He will twist your head around with his smooth tongue and you will not realize it until it is too late, she warns. But the men in the room pay her no heed. A defense attorney is needed and there is only one volunteer. The Stranger, named Sam.
The trial begins. Berish announces the charges:
“I – Berish, Jewish innkeeper at Shamgorod – accuse Him of hostility, cruelty, and indifference. Either He dislikes His chosen people or He doesn’t care about them – period! But then, why has He chosen us – why not someone else, for a change? Either He knows what’s happening to us, or He doesn’t wish to know! In both cases He is…He is…guilty! (Pause. Loud and clear) yes, guilty!”
“It is sad,” Sam allows. “I do not deny that blood was shed and that life was extinguished, but I am asking the question: Who is to blame for all that? After all, the situation seems to me simple indeed: men and women and children were massacred by other men. Why involve, why implicate their Father in Heaven?”
The two attorneys continue to spar, with Sam speaking words I have heard before: “You see [God] among the killers. I find Him among the victims.” Every time there is a tragedy or whenever I brought up some kind of horror from history, I was often met with this idea: God is crying with us. God is suffering with us. Jesus wept. God is with the victims.
And though not as elegantly, I respond like Berish:
“He – a victim? A victim is powerless; is He powerless? He is almighty, isn’t He? He could use His might to save the victims, but He doesn’t! So – on whose side is He? Could the killer kill without His blessing – without His complicity?”
What good are the tears of the Almighty? We cry out of helplessness, frustration, hopelessness. Should not the all-powerful and all-knowing be able to do more? People of faith will respond with free will; because of free will, God cannot interfere. And yet they pray and expect God to answer to their prayers. They will thank God that their children are spared, as though God decided to pick and choose who would live and who would die. When a catastrophe is averted, they will praise God for looking out for them. And yet. Didn’t the victims pray just as hard? Were their prayers not enough? Does he only choose to interfere at certain times, under certain circumstances? But if he interferes once, if he answers a single prayer, why not all? Or at least, why not those of children being slaughtered…
And so I read, and while perhaps not comforted, I found a voice to express my rage and my anger. A way to put into words how done I am with all of this. The trial is reopened again and again – the pogroms, the Holocaust. The killing fields of Cambodia. The genocide against American Indians. Rwanda. Bosnia. And so much more. The systemic sexual abuse by the Catholic Church, the Southern Baptist Church. By individuals.
And the shootings. In Wiesel’s play, the trial is interrupted by another blood-thirsty mob. Here, I started writing this post two days after Uvalde. The night before I post it, another breaking news story about a mass shooting at a hospital in Tulsa. To say nothing of all the other shootings that occurred in between, but just weren’t big enough to break into the news cycle.
There are solutions that we should be pursuing, regardless of God, and I’m a strong believer in those. Regardless of the existence of any deity or lack thereof, we must act. But as someone who once was a strong believer in God, I cannot look at these horrors and acquit him either. As I thought in the immediate aftermath: Dear God, I’m done.