Home > 2010, 21st Century, American Literature, Erdrich Louise, Highly Recommended, Indigenous Literature, Novel, TBR20 > Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich – Stunning

Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich (2001) French title: Dernier rapport sur les miracles à Little No Horse. Translated by Isabelle Reinharez.

Things you need to know about Louise Erdrich before you read this billet. This is from her Goodreads bio: “Karen Louise Erdrich is an American author of novels, poetry, and children’s books. Her father is German American and mother is half Ojibwe and half French American. She is an enrolled member of the Anishinaabe nation (also known as Chippewa). She is widely acclaimed as one of the most significant Native writers of the second wave of what critic Kenneth Lincoln has called the Native American Renaissance.”

This is my second attempt at reading The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse by Louise Erdrich. Somehow, last time I knew it was just a question of bad timing because I really loved this piece of literature.

When the book opens, we’re in 1996 and Father Damian is around a hundred years old. He’s been on the Ojibwe reservation since 1912. He’s been sending letters to the Pope this whole time and now, they’re sending an emissary to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda. Her potential sainthood is at stake and Father Damian knows the truth about her.

We soon discover Father Damian’s personal story. He’s actually a woman. He was born as Agnes DeWitt, became Sister Cecilia when she joined a convent. She had to leave her religious community because she liked playing the piano too much and had a sensual relationship with Chopin’s pieces and her beloved instrument. This was not tolerable for her convent. Released from her vows, she lives on a farm with a German farmer, Bernd Vogel. They fall in love and though they don’t marry, they still have an intense and loving relationship.

Fate strikes, Bernd dies, Agnes is wounded and torrential rains devastate the farm and take away her piano. She survives and happens to take on the identity of Father Damian Modeste who died en route to the Ojibwe reservation of Little No Horse.

Agnes becomes Father Damian. The Last Report on the Miracles on Little No Horse goes back and forth in time. It’s split between a few moments in 1996, when Father Jude investigates Sister Leopolda and makes Damian’s acquaintance, and between tales of the people on the reservation.

The story is not linear, it goes in circles or it’s told by theme: one clan at a time, the interactions between people on the reservation, Father Damian’s personal journey with his faith and his adaptation to the life on the reservation. He befriends Nanapush, a traditional Ojibwe that he never managed to convert to Catholicism.

Father Damian loves the Ojibwe people, they become his people. As soon as Agnes knows where she’s headed, she starts learning the Ojibwe language. She’ll never stop. Father Damian will be a good priest, present during harsh time, understanding, open and always lending a friendly ear.

This is a stunning novel that rings true and it reminded me of Aboriginal literature. It’s the story of a people who has to accept the presence of white men who kill them with foreign illnesses, send them overseas to participate to wars they don’t feel a part of, who try to keep their culture and who live on the edge of two worlds. Even if it’s not a manifesto, the reader reads between the lines and clearly see the struggles, the poverty, the abuse of power and the greed of the white settlers. It is said without animosity but it is said.

We see the lives of human beings who are inhabited passions that they have to live through or try to tame. We follow Agnes/Damian’s doubts, his troubles with her/his double identity and her/his strong faith. Agnes/Damian is a wonderful character who experiences passions in her being, through earthly lovers, through her fusional relationship with music. Father Damian is acutely attuned to the people around him, he catches their vibes, absorbs them and finds the best way to interact with them and take care of them. There is no condemnation in his bones because Agnes knows that Father Damian is her creation, her way to do good. She’s flawed and can’t afford to be too preachy.

Louise Erdrich takes us to Little No Horse, this poor reservation in North Dakota, where part of the Ojibwe Nation still lives today. She said that Little No Horse is not the Turtle Mountain Reservation but it inspired it. She shows us the Ojibwe culture through light and lyrical touches. She doesn’t sugarcoat their hard life or makes them all angels or victims of the white colonization. Story after story, little point after little point, she draws a picture of life at Little No Horse. Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.

I understood that this is what Aborigines call “yarning” and I like that term. Every strand of story weaved with the other strands ends up creating a vivid tapestry of life. I read Little Not Horse in French translation. The cover of the French edition is brilliant. It’s a painting by Maynard Dixon who mostly painted the South-West of America, including Indians. This painting is the perfect cover for Erdrich’s book. It shows someone hidden in a cape, someone who conceals their identity and looks like a nun. The naked character embodies the sensuality of Erdrich’s prose and reminds us that love in all its forms is celebrated in this novel. The naked lady is followed by this other character who also looks like death, desolation and despair. It’s the constant fear that Father Damian feels: if someone sees him naked, they’ll know he’s a woman in disguise.

This is an absolutely stunning book. I hold my breath until the end because I knew Father Damian had a secret to tell. I enjoyed reading the stories of the Little No Horse community. I was interested in Agnes/Damian’s struggles as a person and as a believer. Thanks to her luminous prose, Louise Erdrich manages to stay on a thin rope, avoiding sermons and intolerance.

Highly recommended.

Sue, at Whispering Gums recently reviewed The Bingo Palace by Louise Erdrich here. Some characters come from the same community as the ones in Little No Horse. They seem to be their descendants.

  1. August 7, 2019 at 10:46 pm

    Thanks for sharing this Louise Erdrich book. I’ve only read The Round House and a fantastic short story called “Saint Marie” from Love Medicine. It’s nice to learn about The Last Report. 🙂

    Like

    • August 8, 2019 at 7:51 am

      Thanks! Let me know if you read this one.
      I’ll read other books by her, that’s for sure. Lucky me, most of her books have been translated by the same translator. I don’t think I could read her in the original.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. August 8, 2019 at 1:32 am

    This is great, Emma. Would you like me to add it to my IndigLit resource page? (I have separated it into 3 pages now, to make it easier for people to find things, see https://anzlitlovers.com/anzll-indigenous-literature-reading-list/indigenous-literature-from-around-the-world/)

    Like

  3. August 8, 2019 at 1:57 am

    Thanks for the link Emma. So glad you read this so soon after mine. I like your description of the chronology that “Time is not a straight line and she allows her narration to go in circles, not following a timeline but associations of ideas.” In Bingo Palace, there is a chronological thrust because it is about a relationship, but the time also feels very loose and not the most important thing.

    Like

    • August 8, 2019 at 7:47 am

      I’d like to read The Bingo Palace but I think I should start with The Master Butchers Singing Club.

      I’d be curious to read your thoughts about Little No Horse and especially what you think about the narration.

      Like

      • August 8, 2019 at 7:48 am

        Thanks Emma … one day I’d like to read more of hers, that’s for sure! Maybe Lisa’s next ILW?

        Like

  4. August 8, 2019 at 1:50 pm

    Fascinating. And proof that our response to a book really *does* depend on whether it’s the right book at the right time!

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 18, 2019 at 4:47 pm

      Sorry, I missed your comment.

      Yes, you’re right. When I abandoned it the first time, I left it on the TBR because I could feel that it was more a question of “wrong time – wrong place” than a question of “wrong-for-me”

      Liked by 1 person

  5. August 9, 2019 at 6:33 am

    You’ve persuaded me I should read Erdrich. And I love that you’re reviewing with an Australian perspective.

    Liked by 1 person

    • August 9, 2019 at 10:27 pm

      Great. I’m looking forward to reading your thoughts about it.

      Liked by 1 person

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