A New York Times Notable Book For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved Native American tribe, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man. To further complicate his quiet existence, a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Leopolda's piety, but these facts are bound up in his own secret. He is faced with the most difficult decision: Should he tell all and risk everything . . . or manufacture a protective history for Leopolda, though he believes her wonder-working is motivated solely by evil? In a masterwork that both deepens and enlarges the world of her previous novels set on the same reservation, Louise Erdrich captures the essence of a time and the spirit of a woman who felt compelled by her beliefs to serve her people as a priest. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse is a work of an avid heart, a writer's writer, and a storytelling genius.
There are a lot of time shifts in this book which can occasionally make it hard to follow. Events overlap and collapse in on themselves and you have to really pay attention. At times the book reads as a collection of shorter stories with an overarching theme.
I loved the character of Father Damien; his interior life, the letters he writes to the Pope, the things he feels about falling into a calling that wasn't his own. The book has really interesting things to say about gender, about missionary work, and about the relations between First Nations people and white people.
I really loved this book. I would highly recommend it to others.
The complex story contains many interwoven relationships with several generations involved and the mysteries surrounding Sister Leopolda, but what truly shines is the love of Father Damien for his people to the very end.
She assumes the identity of Father Damien Modeste who is killed on his way to his posting at the Ojibwe reserve of Little No Horse. And spends the rest of her life devoted to the Ojibwe people and her duties as their priest. But all is not smooth sailing as passion for music and for fellow priest Gregory disturb her contentment.
This is a wonderful story. Like other novels by Louise Erdrich, I loved the large cast of characters and her ability to make every one of them vivid and important. I loved the examination of human vs. divine passion, of what happiness really is, of whether certain gifts come from God or from the devil, and in the end, does it matter?
Much of the novel feels nearly picaresque, as readers encounter Ojibwe characters' lives and backgrounds, but stick most emotionally closely to Father Damien. Yet Father Damien (nee Agnes, an identity she assumes only in the privacy of her own home and as necessary) sees him/herself as a transitional point between God and the people. The shape-shifting of gender identity reflects this: the work of a missionary is to constructively be who the people need.
One of Father Damien's final assignments is to investigate the possibility of sainthood for a member of his community named Sister Leopolda, a pious and passionate Ojibwe nun of whom Damien is nevertheless skeptical. Yet, as he looks for proof of sainthood among her antisocial behavior, and struggles for a response to Rome's hope that her passionate and extravagant character was divinely-inspired, Damien must also confront his own deceptive self-portrayal. Which is the greater good, to offer a community honesty, or comfort?
Parts of this book were slow, due to the aforementioned distance put between the reader and the Ojibwe characters, but Damien was a nuanced and thought-provoking character to sustain the narrative.
This is a book that twisted my opinions around its premises more times than once. At times preposterous, and at times profound--this tale binds the reader up into its characters' choices. Choices that we don't always agree with, but seem frequently to find ourselves complicit in.
And although sometimes I felt that small plot twists were a bit pat, I found that their weave into the greater tapestry of Erdrich's telling were more forgivable once we understand where she has brought us.