Father Damien and Agnes Aug 15, 2007
Since the publication of her first acclaimed novel Love Medicine, Louise Erdrich has undertaken a saga of Faulknerian proportions by writing a series of interconnected novels about both Native American and European American characters set in the Dakotas. In doing so, she has created a wholly imagined world. It has proven to be one of the most satisfying reading pleasures of this milennial era.
In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, her 2001 novel, the reader learns that Father Damien Modeste has tended to the Ojibwe people on the reservation of Little No Horse for nearly 50 years. Yet as he approaches death, he fears his unmasking; he is a woman who has posed as a man. His secluded life is threatened when a colleague visits in order to investigate the problematic life of Sister Leopolda (first introduced in Love Medicine as a sadistic nun).
The gender disguise at the heart of the novel is utterly convincing. Erdrich uses the names of Agnes and Father Damien interchangeably to refer to the protagonist throughout the novel and what initially seems an awkward device is soon accepted by the reader as a double perspective, both female and male.
As always, Erdrich's delineation of overpowering desire, malevolence, enmity, and disease is persuasive; terrible events occur in the novel. While the author describes a hardscrabble life among the Ojibwe generations, Nanapush, the priest's closest friend, and Father Damien are at its spiritual heart; through Damien, the author achieves a wondrous synthesis of Native American and Catholic belief. (One slight caveat: an afterword isn't the most effective way to bring closure to a novel). Also recommended are Erdrich's The Beet Queen, The Antelope Wife, and of course Love Medicine.