Louise Erdrich

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"The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse"

(Reviewed by Carisa Richner DEC 19, 2004)

What is the whole of our existence but the sound of an appalling love?

Spanning most of the twentieth century, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse tells the story of Agnes DeWitt, a former nun who disguises herself as a man in order to serve as a priest on an Indian Reservation in North Dakota. The story is told in the present and as flashback, as Father Damian is being interviewed by another priest, sent by the Vatican to investigate whether the claims that Sister Leopolda, a parish nun, is indeed a candidate for sainthood. In this rich and detailed story, Erdrich explores love in all its forms: the love of the divine for us, love within marriage, illicit love, and even the love between a mother and child.

The story of Agnes’s transformation from a nun to a priest begins with Agnes walking away from her convent after becoming overwhelmed, almost taken over, by music. Her love of music has replaced her love for God. She stumbles into the barn of a German farmer, where she lives happily until a bank robber, who has taken Agnes hostage, kills him. In her grief a priest visits her, the original Father Damian Modeste, who tells her that he is enroute to the north to “missionize Indians.” Unfortunately, he is killed in a flood that sweeps the Red River Valley. By a stroke of luck, Agnes finds his body, buries him, and assumes his identity. The nuns at the mission do not question her gender, and she begins her life as a man. In a humorous aside, she composes a list of “Rules to Assist in My Transformation” which include “Make requests in the form of orders,” and “Admire women’s handiwork with copious amazement.”

Although most people believe she is a man, some see through her disguise, including Sister Leopolda, who later in the novel threatens to expose her to the papal authorities if Agnes exposes the truth about her. Agnes enters into this agreement, afraid that once her true identity is revealed, her work as a priest will become undone, leaving couples unmarried, babies unbaptized, and sin unforgiven. Of course, this leaves Agnes in an ethical dilemma: is it right for a guilty person to go unpunished with Agnes’s secret safe, or should the guilty be caught and her illusion exposed with Agnes losing ability to do God’s work on the reservation among people she truly loves? What Agnes doesn’t deal with is the question contained within her fear, namely are people truly baptized or married or absolved when a female priest is performing the sacrament? Is the stricture of the Catholic Church that priests be male just a man-made requirement, or is it truly ordained by God, in which case isn’t Agnes’s fear already realized?

Erdrich introduces her theme of illicit love with the arrival of Father Gregory, a priest sent to help Agnes with her duties. He is attracted to her and alarmed and ashamed because of it. Her secret is revealed, however, and they fall in love, only to be faced with a choice when the church authorities call him to his own parish (after they receive a letter from Agnes asking that Gregory be moved away). Gregory offers to give up the priesthood, and marry Agnes, but she refuses. She is wedded to her identity as a priest, and cannot disavow her calling and abandon what have become her people.

While the story of Agnes’ transformation and subsequent priesthood could constitute the subject of a satisfying novel on its own, Erdrich introduces a secondary storyline that centers on Pauline Puyat, or Sister Leopolda. Certain miraculous healings and interventions are attributed to her, and a priest, Father Jude, is dispatched to verify these happenings, as the first stage in the canonization process. Pauline’s story is as fascinating as Agnes’, and includes a bit of a murder mystery. Ironically, by the end of the novel, Father Jude realizes that there have indeed been miraculous happenings at Little No Horse, but that the source is not Sister Leopolda, but Father Damian.

Readers familiar with Erdich’s previous books will meet some familiar characters while learning about Pauline. She fills in some gaps left in the on-going lore of the Kashpaw, Pillager, Morrissey and Lazarre families started in Love Medicine, and continuing through The Beet Queen, The Bingo Palace, Tales of Burning Love and The Antelope Wife. Some of these plot lines provide comic relief, while others teach us the reality of life on an Indian Reservation in the twenties and thirties. However, readers do not have to be “up” on the stories of these families to enjoy this novel; this novel stands beautifully on its own. It is a novel that speaks eloquently on issues of faith, miracles, identity and truth, while still telling us a really good story.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 56 reviews

 

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"The Bingo Palace"

(Reviewed by Judi Clark AUG 31, 1999)

Lipsha Morrissey, what can his people say about him except, "Who he is is just the habit of who he always was, we warned Marie. If he's not careful, who he'll be is the result." Lipsha is summoned home when his grandmother sends him a copy of his father's Wanted poster. He arrives during the Intertribal song at the winter powwow. He sees his cousin Albertine dancing and then can't help but notice Shawnee Ray. And from this moment on he is consumed with her.

But as pure and hungry as his love seems to be, it is far from simple. The father of Shawnee Ray's son is Lipsha's own uncle-brother Lyman Larmartine. Out of the overpowering goodness of her heart, Zelda Kapshaw took in the pregnant Shawnee Ray and now feels that it is her job to watch out for Shawnee's life. One thing is for sure, Shawnee would be better off marrying Lyman, the reservation's "big cheese" and Zelda sets events in motion to discourage Shawnee's interest in Lipsha. To complicate matters even further, Lyman gives Lipsha a job as a night watchman at his bar/bingo hall/blackjack parlor. So now he is competing with his blood relative and boss. And he comes to discover that Lyman is also hopelessly in love with Shawnee Ray.

Lipsha's legacy is that he was raised by his grandmother Marie Kapshaw, after his own mother, June Morrissey, tried to drown him in the slough as an infant. The fact that he didn't drown is the mystery. June, now dead herself, visits Lipsha one night at the bar. She's decided that she wants the car he bought with her insurance money. In exchange she leaves him some very lucky Bingo cards. Lucky enough that is, to win him a plush new van and lots of cash. But not enough luck to win the girl or to break the habit of getting in harm's way. In the end, we find that it is each of his grandmothers including his great-grandmother that control the events of the bigger picture. We find that not even Zelda is in control but is just one more of the players.

As should be expected with a book called The Bingo Palace, there are many references to chance and luck. Many of the chapter's describe somebody's luck ("Lipsha's Luck," "June's Luck," "Lyman's Luck"). In most cases, the luck is not of the good kind, or if it appears good, it doesn't last. And those with the luck, such as Fleur, are not the one's you want to mess with. The title also has another more obvious context, that of the Indian Gaming Industry as we find out that Lyman Larmartine is working towards building a Bingo Parlor on some undeeded land.

Reading The Bingo Palace is a wonderful experience. Every sentence is a masterpiece, evidence of a poet writing fiction. However, this book requires patience and many sections require re-reads in order to keep track of the many relations and to truly understand the ending. In the end I probably read the book twice, by the time I had gone and back and forth a few times.

Love Medicine, The Beet Queen and Tracks all involve the same three families as The Bingo Palace in the fictional town of Argus, Dakota. These I must read, for now that I have been introduced to these people I want more.

  • Amazon reader rating: from 10 reviews


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Bibliography: (with links to Amazon.com)

**Ojibwe reservation

With her husband, Michael Dorris:

For Young Readers:

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About the Author:

Louise ErdrichKaren Louise Erdrich was born in Little Falls, Minnesota in 1954 to a Chippewa mother and a German-American father. As a member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Tribe, she grew up in Wahpeton, North Dakota, a town near a reservation, where both of her parents were teachers for the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

While growing up, her father encouraged her and sisters to write stories by paying a nickel for each story. She was brought up listening to stories by her mother and maternal grandmother. She also credits her interest in writing to the lack of television and movie exposure.

In 1972, Erdrich earned a scholarship to Dartmouth College. This was also the first year the college admitted women and the year the Native American studies department was created. The department was headed up by anthropologist Michael Dorris who later became her collaborator and husband. In 1978 she enrolled in an M.A. program at John Hopkins University where she wrote poems and stories incorporating her heritage. After Erdrich received her master's degree, she returned to Dartmouth as a poet and writer-in-residence. In 1980, Dorris and Erdrich started successfully collaborating and by 1981 they were married. Together they raised six children, the first three were adopted. Sadly, in April 1997, Dorris committed suicide after having separated from Erdrich and allegations of child abuse.

In 1985, The National Books Critics Circle honored her as the year's best novelist. Her novels include the National Book Critics Circle Award-winning Love Medicine and the National Book Award finalist The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, as well as poetry, children's books, and a memoir of early motherhood, The Blue Jay's Dance. Her short fiction has won the National Magazine Award and is included in the O. Henry and Best American short-story collections.

She lives in Minnesota with her children, who help her run a small independent bookstore, The Birchbark.

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