A Woman With A Habit

  • It will not surprise Louise Erdrich's constant readers that a number of people from her previous fiction reappear in her enchanting and absorbing new novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse (HarperCollins; 361 pages; $26). "A few years ago, I finally decided that I was working on one long novel," Erdrich says, sitting in a comfortable chair in Birchbark Books, the store she opened last June in a residential neighborhood in Minneapolis. Strapped to her chest in a Baby Bjorn carrier is Azure, the infant daughter whom the author, 46, bore in early January to an Ojibwe father whose identity she is keeping to herself. Recognizing that all her books are parts of a larger saga eased her mind, she says, about repeating herself. "I stopped being concerned about whether the same characters show up or not. I really don't have a choice, anyway. If they show up, they have to show up."

    But just because Nanapush, the raffishly funny Ojibwe storyteller, and various members of the Kashpaw clan--major players in other Erdrich books--show up again in The Last Report doesn't mean that the new novel stints on surprises. The biggest one is revealed early. Erdrich's fans have met Father Damien Modeste and Agnes DeWitt before. Now these two merge into one person.

    Accept that odd premise--Erdrich makes it seem marvelously plausible--and the novel's overarching theme becomes poignantly clear. From 1912 to 1996, Agnes, disguised as Damien and thus a sham as both man and priest, tries to bring Roman Catholicism to the Ojibwes of Little No Horse reservation on a lonely patch of North Dakota. These people have been deprived of their ancestral lands and hence the sustaining spirits of their culture; they are stalled between past and future. What help can a missionary from the conquering side bring them?

    Small, vivid answers emerge in Erdrich's episodic narrative. The daily contacts between priest and parishioners deepen over the decades into an enduring, if unconventional, love story, thoroughly reciprocal. At last, those friends who don't know the truth about Damien see his long devotion to Little No Horse as saintly; the few who have sensed Agnes inside the impostor believe the same, with even more conviction.

    Erdrich, who was raised a Catholic, admits that making her main character a woman priest has a feminist aspect, but adds, "I don't really think it is about gender in the larger sense. I think it's about a search for identity." The possibility of being more than one sort of person comes to Erdrich as a birthright: she is German on her father's side and French and Ojibwe on her mother's. She spent her childhood in Wahpeton, N.D., where both parents taught at a Bureau of Indian Affairs school. Those years drew Erdrich strongly toward her Ojibwe heritage and had the same effect on her six siblings, nearly all of whom, she says, "are involved in some way in Native American health or education." Erdrich's fiction, of course, has reflected this side of her background, but she now has finished three-quarters of a new novel called The Master Butcher's Singing Club, inspired by the name of a club to which her paternal, German grandfather once belonged.

    Four years have passed since Erdrich's husband and sometime collaborator, the author Michael Dorris, committed suicide. They were separated at the time, and he was despondent at being investigated for possible sexual abuse of one of their three daughters, who are now 12 to 17. Erdrich describes the press attention surrounding this affair as "extremely painful" and politely but firmly refuses to discuss Dorris or his death in any detail. "It's very hard for me to address, because the smallest thing I say raises such a range of complex issues with his children, his friends, his remaining family. Even if I felt entirely free, I think it's going to take me a very long time to come to terms with what happened."

    Erdrich is healing, as one look at tiny Azure making contented noises in the bookstore strongly confirms. Why did the author want to become a mother again? "There isn't a why. It's so deeply biological, and it's so limbic-brain oriented. I love being a mother. I have a comfort level with a certain chaos in my life." And a certain mystery as well. She won't identify Azure's father, she says, because in the aftermath of Dorris' suicide, "why would I ever talk about the father of my children again? It seems as though to talk about people you love is almost...what did the Greeks believe? You don't want to incur the wrath of the gods."