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The Making of a Saint

THE LAST REPORT ON THE MIRACLES AT LITTLE NO HORSE A Novel; By Louise Erdrich; HarperCollins: 362 pp., $26

April 15, 2001|THOMAS CURWEN | Thomas Curwen is the deputy editor of Book Review

How do you write the life of a saint? Do you tell a story of sacrifice and fill in the blanks with the words of the faithful? Do you depict the moment of conversion, the light cutting through the dust of a misguided past? Do you borrow a page from the canon and let the miracles speak for themselves? Teetering between biography and fiction, hagiography is tricky business: Only God can make a saint, but it takes a novelist to tell the story.

Since her 1984 debut with "Love Medicine," Louise Erdrich has in six novels created one of the more elaborate narrative strains in contemporary fiction, an intricate braiding of characters, place and generational history. Her ambition is breathtaking, and her art-a mixture of raucous storytelling and lyrical prose-has seldom veered from a deeper purpose, to portray the struggles of a community as it confronts the pain of its failed past.

"The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse," her latest dispatch from the plains of northern North Dakota, is the story of Father Damien Modeste. In earlier novels, Damien's church and the adjacent convent have been a focal point of reservation life yet, curiously, he stood almost invisible, at a distance. Now he takes center stage, and Erdrich uses his long life to take us deeper into the worlds of two families, the Kashpaws and Nanapushes, to chart their difficult passage from the 19th century to the present. Some of the stories are new; some have occurred in earlier work and are told from different perspectives. But none has the impact of Damien's, whose life is most remarkable for the fact that he is a woman. "Then, with slow care," we read at the end of the prologue, "he turned off the bedside lamp, and in the moonlighted dark unwound from his chest a wide Ace bandage. His woman's breasts were small, withered, modest as folded flowers."

It is a bold gambit, though not entirely surprising for Erdrich, who has always had something of the Trickster in her, and not entirely improbable (she cites in the end notes the example of the late Billy Tipton, the jazz pianist who passed as a man for most of her life). Yet it is a gambit that makes "The Last Report," with perhaps the exception of "Love Medicine," Erdrich's riskiest novel and at times her most problematic.

"Some people, they go so deep," she writes. "They are like a being made of tunnels. Passageways that twist and double back and disappear. You have a foot on one path and you follow for a while, but then there is a sinkhole, bad footing, a wall."

Gender-bending aside, it is a frustrating and slippery path (that winds-perhaps more than one might wish-back into the previous books), but it is an apt metaphor for Erdrich's understanding of what makes us human: the slow accretion of experience, the chipping at and the piecing together of memory, the reshuffling and reassembling of affections. (It may be a sign of these complications that "The Last Report" is Erdrich's first novel to feature a family tree.)

When we first see Damien, he is more than 100 years old, writing reports to the Vatican late into the night, desperately seeking guidance from the pope before it's too late. The weight of the past-decisions he has made and secrets he has kept-weigh upon him. First, there is the matter of Sister Leopolda, whom some believe worthy of beatification; an investigation is about to begin into her life that Damien thinks should not be done. Then there is the matter of his own sin, his deception and the great peril he's placed the community in. "[A]ll would be lost," he realizes, if the truth of his identity were revealed. "Married couples [he] had joined would be sundered. Babies unbaptized and exposed to the dark powers. Deaths unblessed and sins again weighing on the poor sinners." As he wrestles with these demons, Erdrich cuts back and forth in time to draw out no fewer than 100 years of life on the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse, a broad sweep of time that is a measure of her vision of this place and the people who live here.

The narrative begins in 1910 when Damien is in the novitiate-once Agnes DeWitt, now Sister Cecilia-a young woman who finds God less compelling than Chopin's piano works. Her playing disrupts the meditative life within and suggests a deeper, unfulfilled desire. Not long for the cloistered life, "[s]he was one who believed without seeing, felt spiritual emotion without experience of its source, kept an orderly faith and haphazard observance without the deepest marks of conviction."

Abandoning the convent, she arrives one day hungry and homeless on the doorstep of a solitary farmer. They set up housekeeping. He buys her a piano, and they fall in love. It is a dream that breaks abruptly on a clear spring day when a bank robber murders the farmer and leaves her a widow, a tragedy made all the more terrible for its randomness.

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