Any summary of Louise Erdrich's new novel risks crimping its striking variety and imaginative power. "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse" is one of those wonderful books that's as memorable for its parts as it is for its whole. (Excerpts have already appeared in The New Yorker.)
The story returns to the Ojibwe natives of North Dakota depicted in her earlier novels, including "Love Medicine," for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983. Although fans will recognize characters from those books, this novel approaches the community from a distance, in the voice of an unusual stranger.
Agnes DeWitt, of rural Wisconsin, would have spent her quiet life teaching in the convent were it not for her love of Chopin. So passionate is her playing that the other nuns wake in a troubling sweat. When the Mother Superior removes the piano stool, Agnes plays on her knees. Asked to stop, she takes off her habit and wanders back into the world.
She has the good fortune to find a man who loves her as much as she loves music, but just as her heart expands to include him, she's widowed in one of the novel's many spectacular episodes. Alone, homeless, and drowning in an awesome flood, she finds the body of a dead priest tangled in a tree and steals his identity.
It's an outrageous move for Agnes and Erdrich, the sort of gender-bending gimmick that threatens the novel's seriousness. But great triumphs arise from great risks, and "The Last Report" transcends its transsexual plot to stand firmly on the bedrock of human nature. In both conception and execution, it's a marvelous accomplishment.
Before Agnes arrives at Little No Horse in 1912 as Father Damien, she has never seen an American Indian. Living "the most sincere lie a person could ever tell," she walks with bloodied feet into a community ravaged by disease and sapped by clever lumbermen.
"In that period of regard," when she first sees her modest cabin, "the unsettled intentions, the fears she felt, the exposure she already dreaded, faded to a fierce nothing, a white ring of mineral ash left after the water had boiled away. There would be times that she missed the ease of moving in her old skin, times that Father Damien was pierced by womanness and suffered. Still, Agnes was certain now that she had done the right thing. Father Damien Modeste had arrived here. The true Modeste who was supposed to arrive - none other. No one else."
From the first mass she celebrates, while a small band of nuns with frostbitten cheeks looks on, Agnes is tested in body and spirit. Having already survived so much, though, she's blessed with a sense that she cannot be harmed. Only a wholehearted devotion to the healing effect of forgiveness enables her to survive, thrive, and bless these often desperate people. "What is the whole of our existence," she asks, "but the sound of an appalling love?"
Over the next 80 years, she struggles with questions of faith, searching for and eventually finding a divine trunk beneath the branches of her own theology and the native spirituality of the people she serves. In her depiction of the intersection of these two faiths, Erdrich celebrates what's holy in both. Agnes's unanswered letters to the pope gradually grow into a kind of diary, a place to wonder and pray, vent and question.
The novel opens toward the end of her long life, when she is fully and happily integrated into the social structure of the reservation. The Rev. Jude Miller, a young, prudish priest, has arrived to investigate the possible beatification of a local nun, the late Sister Leopaldo. Despite the intervening decades, Agnes remembers her well, and she remembers nothing good about her: "She was a spiritual arsonist."
In the course of their wandering interview, Agnes tells Father Jude the history of her own life with the Ojibwe in a startling collection of stories that shift like seasons from tragedy to humor, legend, and mysticism. Father Jude is annoyed and profoundly unsettled by Father Damien's ambiguous attitudes, but among the wrenching stories of disease, insanity, and revenge are some sparklingly funny tales that capture the rich complexity of these people's lives. In one episode, a statue of Mary flies through the wall of a cabin and converts a group of alcoholics. And in the destined-to-be-classic story of Nanapush hunting the moose, we see a wild combination of Woody Allen and native-American sensibilities.
Even the small incidents in this novel are moments of tremendous power, stripped of sentimentality or pretension. Erdrich has developed a style that can sound as serious as death or ring with the haunting simplicity of ancient legend. Let's hope this isn't really the last report on the miracles at Little No Horse.
Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail comments to email@example.com.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor