What does it mean to be a saint? There’s the Catholic definition. There’s also the word we toss around to describe people who are especially good or pious, but without the miracles. This question, along with questions about identity, gender, goodness, atonement, love, religion, and more, fuel Louise Erdrich’s beautiful novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. The novel moves back and forth in time as Father Damien Modeste slowly reveals the secrets they’ve been holding on to for decades, as another priest arrives to investigate whether or not the controversial Sister Leopolda should be considered for sainthood. The more I learned, the more I wondered if the strict definitions of saintliness might exclude a genuinely good person and uphold a woman who needed a psychotherapist more than anything else.
Father Damien, we learn fairly early on in the novel, was not always a father…or even a Damien. They were born Agnes DeWitt and spent time as a postulant before pursuing her love of music away from the convent. After a touching but slightly odd relationship with a man who is killed by a bank robber and an encounter with a missionary priest who drowns in the Red River, Agnes reinvents herself as Father Damien. For the rest of the novel, this character is alternately referred to as he and she, Damien and Agnes. This character is not overtly transgender. Rather, they have remade themselves so that they can do the job they’ve chosen for themselves: doing God’s work. (It’s still easier to refer to this character without gendered pronouns, because their sense of identity changes from sentence to sentence.) The really interesting thing, for me, is that Damien/Agnes doesn’t have as firm an idea of what that is as other Catholic priests do. After an upsetting scene in which Damien is manipulated into breaking up a polygamous family, Damien/Agnes stops doing what is expected of priests and spends a lot more time listening and a lot more time forgiving.
Damien/Agnes’ brand of Catholicism stands in stark contrast to the Catholicism of Sister Leopolda. Damien/Agnes met Leopolda when she was still known as the Puyat or Pauline Puyat. From the first, Damien/Agnes has a strong aversion to Pauline. There is something unsettling about the way the girl mortifies herself, how she draws attention to herself in disastrous ways, and how she twists God’s love into a punishment for everyone. We learn later why Pauline is so determined in her penances, but to all outward appearances, Sister Leopolda seems like the kind of miraculous saint that used to appear during the Middle Ages. People are ready to ascribe all kinds of miracles to her—though I noticed that the people who want to believe she was a saint never met her. Some of the people who met Sister Leopolda refuse to speak about her, the experiences were so traumatic.
The chapters in The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse drift back and forth from 1996, the last year of Damien/Agnes’ very long life, and years between 1910 and 1960. Each chapter reveals a little bit more about their extraordinary life. Though I wanted to know more about her, Sister Leopolda remains mostly in the background. Because she only rarely appears directly here, we can concentrate on Damien/Agnes’ evolving faith. Even though their first meeting became one of the many things Damien/Agnes feels they need to atone for, Nanapush becomes a huge influence on Damien/Agnes’ increasingly syncretic faith. Over time, Damien/Agnes begins to pray as much to Nanabozho as they do god and speak more in Ojibemowin as they do English. Above all, Damien/Agnes forgives. Even after they retire from most of their church duties, parishioners still prefer that Damien/Agnes to hear their confessions. It’s not the penances or the words of absolution. It’s the feeling Damien/Agnes conveys of genuine forgiveness and love. Unlike the people who knew Sister Leopolda and won’t speak of her, the people who know Damien/Agnes fiercely, openly love them—and they are just as fiercely loyal about their priest’s secrets.
It’s all a bit bewildering to the visiting priest, Father Jude Miller. Father Jude expected either miracles or a thorough debunking. Finding a new variety of Catholicism was definitely a surprise. Reading this book and hearing all the stories—especially the uproarious story of Nanapush’s death and wake—offer so much food for thought that I want to have other people read it so that I can talk to them about it. This book was a joy. It’s packed with things I love in a book: nonlinear story telling, irreverence and deep questions about faith, intricate family histories, a sense of humor, starting in one place and ending up in an opposite place, great characters, a hint of darkness. I strongly recommend The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse to any reader who also loves these things, with a special extra nudge for book groups. This is definitely the kind of book that you’ll want to keep talking about after you read the last beautiful, aching scene.