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Mysteries and Miracles - Louise Erdrich's strange tale of an unconventional spiritual vocation extends the range of her engrossing Native American saga.

Bruce Allen is a contributing editor to Kirkus Reviews and a freelance reviewer for the Boston Globe, New York Times, and several other publications. He is at work on a critical history of the American short story.

Of all the writers since his time who have been anointed and burdened with the task of becoming the next William Faulkner (one thinks of William Styron floundering in grandiosity), Minnesota's Louise Erdrich seems to have staked the strongest contemporary claim.

Her several fictional explorations of the life in and around an Ojibwe (or Chippewa) Indian reservation, near likewise-fictional Matchimanito Lake in north-central North Dakota, bear many essential resemblances to Faulkner's mythic creation of Mississippi's Yoknapatawpha County. Erdrich's novels are continually shifting narratives, looping perpetually forward and backward in time, whose characters are caught at different stages in their evolution and interrelatedness. Historical tapestries, as it were, in which a single climactic event may be depicted in one fold, the events that precipitated it in another, its consequences in yet another.

Erdrich's newest novel is arguably her finest, both a significant artistic step forward and a perfectly logical outgrowth of the distinguished oeuvre that preceded and includes it. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse has its roots in the unusual background from which this most unusual writer has emerged.

Beginnings

Born in 1954 in Little Falls, Montana, Louise Erdrich grew up near the Turtle Mountain Reservation in North Dakota. Both her Chippewa mother and her German-American father were teachers at a boarding school run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. The eldest of seven children, she was a writer from early childhood, encouraged by her parents and stimulated by the presence of Native American culture and history, all around her, and specifically embodied by her Chippewa grandfather, a Turtle Mountain tribal chairman.

Erdrich entered Dartmouth College in 1972--another in a varied round of activities that also included employment as a waitress, poetry teacher, lifeguard, and construction gang "flagger." At Dartmouth, she met writer Michael Dorris (himself part Modoc Indian), head of the college's Native American Studies program and a single adoptive father. Louise graduated in 1976; several years later they met again at a poetry reading (according to Dorris' account in The Broken Cord) and began a romantic relationship. They began collaborating on fictional projects as well; a joint story of theirs, "The World's Greatest Fisherman," won a $5,000 Nelson Algren prize. They married in 1981, after Louise completed graduate work at Johns Hopkins University.

The marriage seemed perfect, and each began publishing critically acclaimed and highly popular books: Louise's widely reviewed and respected early fiction (particularly Love Medicine and The Beet Queen), and Michael's robust first novel A Yellow Raft in Blue Water (1987) and award-winning memoir of raising an adoptive son born with fetal alcohol syndrome, The Broken Cord (1989). Three daughters were born to the couple, joining their three adopted sons.

But the marriage failed, and by 1996, the couple had separated and planned to divorce. Under a cloud of allegations that he had sexually abused his adopted children, Dorris took his own life in 1997. Understandably, Erdrich has told interviewers little about the last years of her marriage or her bereavement.

Erdrich has gradually become an even more visible figure in recent years, serving on the executive board of the PEN Writers Union, submitting to numerous interviews, producing further installments in her many-paneled Native American saga, and, not coincidentally, acquiring local fame as proprietor of a busy Minneapolis shop named Birch Bark Books, Herbs, and Native Arts. She is the new mother (at age forty-six) of a fourth daughter.

Still, the world knows her best as the author of the phenomenally successful Love Medicine (1984), which won the National Book Critics Circle Prize for Fiction. A loosely episodic "novel," it introduced members of the Lazarre, Lamartine, Morrissey, Kashpaw, and other families who reappear throughout her subsequent books. She has published seven adult novels, several children's books (including Grandmother's Pigeon and The Birchbark House), two volumes of poetry (Jacklight and Baptism of Desire), and a luminous memoir of pregnancy and motherhood, The Blue Jay's Dance: A Birth Year (1995).

Generations and their stories

The world of Erdrich's adult novels is both a seductively beautiful one and a sometimes indistinct landscape in which it's all but impossible to get one's bearings. Characters appear and reappear, and they're often changed almost beyond recognition when we encounter them in different contexts. This is in part inevitable because the novels together cover a span of almost a century (roughly, from 1912 through the late 1980s)--but also because the several narrators all have their agendas, their personal enmities and family hatreds, and, as they themselves age and fail, increasingly unreliable memories.

A case in point is Love Medicine, a fifty-year (1934--84) generational saga in which several extramarital affairs and illegitimate births complicate an already staggeringly convoluted genealogy. Erdrich extensively revised and expanded this novel for a 1993 edition, which she has since declared definitive.

The novel's eye-catching title refers to a potion young Lipsha Morrissey gives to Nector Kashpaw, in an attempt to learn the truth about Lipsha's parentage. Nector, meanwhile, is the object of the romantic attentions of both stoic Marie Lazarre (who marries him and bears him five children) and wild young Lulu Nanapush, one of Erdrich's most formidably self-possessed female characters (so much so that Nector burns her house down to deflect Lulu's attention from him).

The marital and sexual adventuring of these and several other characters dominates a series of interlocking tales (most of which were previously published as separate short stories), which comprise a ribald, boisterous, and convincingly dramatic piecemeal portrayal of reservation life. Love Medicine also points clearly toward Erdrich's later work, in scenes set at the reservation's Sacred Heart Convent that focus on the unstable and reportedly violent character of the nun known as Sister Leopolda. In them, we get a few brief glimpses of the saintly Father Damien.

Heroines and survivors

The Beet Queen (1986), which covers the years 1932--72, is an ampler and in some ways more successful novel. It is unusual in Erdrich's oeuvre in that its featured characters include as many whites and half- breeds as Native Americans. It concentrates on the generally unappealing figure of twice-unhappily-married Dot Adare Nanapush Mauser.

Once again estranged and shattered families are central (one is in fact endangered by a male homosexual relationship, involving Dot's tormented father Karl). The riveting narrative stretches as far as urban Minneapolis while relating the history of the Adare clan to those of its neighbors and enemies. Erdrich wrests both high comedy and genuine pathos from Dot's uneasy relationships with her mother and renegade husbands. Husband number one is the fugitive Gerry Nanapush (who keeps escaping from the prison to which he's sentenced for assault), and number two is the womanizing construction contractor Jack Mauser. Dot's mother, the mixed-blood matriarch Celestine James, is another of Erdrich's marvelously resilient nurturing female figures.

Several critics objected to a rather contrived ending--which takes place at a beet festival--and a competition rigged by Karl's lover, businessman Wallace Pfef, so that Dot can be (improbably) crowned Beet Queen. Contrived it may be, but this is a novel positively brimming with narrative energy and boldly conceived characters. You may well have trouble sorting out who begat whom, or how people are otherwise related by blood or coincidence. But you'll have a hard time forgetting Dot Adare and Celestine James.

With Tracks (1988), Erdrich offered extended backward looks at several of her recurring families' families, while also layering in a good deal of thinly dramatized sociohistorical commentary. The latter relates to both the specific harm wrought by a lumber company that devastates tribal homelands and the more general effects of organized efforts to replace Native American beliefs with the tenets of white European Christianity.

The novel draws great strength from the opposition of its two major figures. One is venal, choleric Pauline Puyat, who rejects her heritage, attempts to "pass" as white, and enters Sacred Heart Convent as a postulant (and probably also as an uncaught murderer). The other is beautiful, otherworldly Fleur Pillager, a healer and visionary possessed of mysterious powers (she can, for example, predict for hunters exactly where deer will be found), who will survive gang rape and near death by drowning, influenza, and numerous other extremities. These two vivid characters provide a stable center for a novel that perpetually threatens to spin out of control, into discursive rant (an error in judgment to be found nowhere else in Erdrich's work) and discordant melodramatic incident.

The prevalence of flood, tornado, and plague, among other, less newsworthy catastrophes, does indeed come close to imbuing Tracks with the "fatal cheapness" that Henry James so disdained in costume historical novels. And yet, the book rises above these and other lapses, thanks to the aforementioned women and the bravura set pieces that Erdrich handles with ever-increasing mastery: notably the elder Nanapush's epic tale of the 1912 epidemic that all but destroyed his people and Pauline Puyat's decidedly nonobjective account of Fleur Pillager's many "miraculous" escapes from danger.

Speaking of "fatal cheapness," there is The Crown of Columbus (1991), a historical novel planned to coincide approximately with the five hundredth anniversary of Christopher Columbus' "discovery" of America. It's a pure (or rather impure) potboiler, featuring a pair of male and female Dartmouth profs whose historical researches unearth some very unconvincing derring-do, which sinks so low as to include a climactic sixteen-page poem (presented without any discernible irony) that's even more painful to read than it must have been to write.

One can only assume that Erdrich and Dorris, whose earlier collaborations are significant and worthy concomitants of each other's serious literary work, wrote this one with one eye each trained on the Book of the Month Club. The Crown of Columbus was a commercial success but so were Ten Nights in a Bar-Room and The Love Machine. The less said about it, the better.

Conflict and change

The Bingo Palace (1994), a virtual sequel to Love Medicine, is set in the late 1980s and once again dramatizes the issue of the loss of native lands in the conflicted, essentially comic figure of Lipsha Morrissey. Still partially estranged from his heritage (though he has by now learned who his parents are), Lipsha works at his uncle Lyman Lamartine's gambling establishment (the bingo "palace"), pursues the affections of beautiful young dancer Shawnee Ray Toose (who's another of the acquisitive Lyman's possessions), and experiences a series of ironic "visitations" that strongly suggest the increasing moribundity of traditional Ojibwe culture.

His father, Gerry Nanapush, eternally in flight from the law, reenters Lipsha's life, as does his great-grandmother Fleur Pillager, whose words of wisdom are perhaps slightly undermined by the fact that her figure appears to "shape-shift" into that of a talking bear. Erdrich drives the point home when Lipsha's further search for enlightenment, undertaken via a ritualistic vision quest, is rewarded by the presence of a loquacious skunk. There's a lot going on in The Bingo Palace. Not all of it works (a subplot that takes the greedy Lyman to Las Vegas, for instance, doesn't seem to belong in the book at all), but Erdrich's wry transpositions of traditional folkways, especially Ojibwe supernaturalism, are honed to a keen comic edge.

Erdrich's versatility is vividly displayed in her next novel, Tales of Burning Love (1996), which brings us still closer to the approximate present day, while simultaneously stretching backward to provide new perspectives on the content of the four earlier novels. Its subject (though not its protagonist) is Jack Mauser, like his creator the offspring of a Chippewa mother and German father, who leaves the reservation as a young man, prospers as the owner of a construction company, and takes unto his bosom no fewer than five wives.

Jack is an agreeable enough rogue, as we learn from the "tales" exchanged by his four surviving exes (his first wife had been June Kashpaw, whose accidental death during a snowstorm continues to haunt him all his days--as does June's ghost, incidentally). The occasion for their storytelling session is Jack's funeral, at which the four-- Eleanor Schlick, Candice Pantamounty, Marlis Cook, and Dot Adare Nanapush (each of whom is given her own complex family history)--had met, prior to being trapped together in a car that hits a huge snowdrift. Their exuberant memories of Jack's rascally vigor are undercut by the reader's knowledge that the late lamented, having faked his own death, is still out there, looking for more worlds--and women-- to conquer.

Tales of Burning Love is quite deliberately Chaucerian in its skillful manipulation of interlocking and mutually echoing stories set within an embracing frame; in particular, Jack's five marriages (as well as his incredible appetitive energy) tempt the reader to think of him as a male counterpart to Chaucer's incorrigibly lusty Wife of Bath. This is the liveliest and most immediately entertaining of Erdrich's books thus far.

A new saga

With The Antelope Wife (1988), Erdrich enters new territory. Set mostly in and near Minneapolis, it introduces an entirely new set of characters in an ambitious multigenerational tale whose separate stories are explicitly compared to beads stitched together by a patient craftsman, which form a design that isn't discernible until the work is completed. (One wonders whether Erdrich is offering this as a metaphor for her own tightly knit, seemingly formally amorphous work in progress.)

It begins stunningly, following a U.S. cavalry raid on an Ojibwe village, when white soldier Scranton Roy sights a dog escaping from the carnage with a baby tied to its back. Roy rescues and raises the child (a girl, whom he names Matilda): an act of both love and assimilation that is destined to be cruelly thwarted, as the novel's subsequent incidents dramatize the painful incompatibility of white and Ojibwe cultures.

It's a rich book, which effectively juxtaposes colorful ancestral tales, told by both human and canine narrators (such as that of Blue Prairie Woman, who becomes the wife of a stag), with a grim account of the downward path trod by Richard Whiteheart Beads, an Ojibwe activist and spokesman who cannot survive in the world outside the reservation. Marital troubles, alcoholism, and Richard's grief-stricken guilt over the accidental death of his beloved daughter (who succumbed to carbon monoxide poisoning in a truck left running in a closed garage, where Richard had planned to kill himself) exact their toll in a troubling novel, which, one cannot help guessing, may be a partial fictionalization of the short, unhappy life of Michael Dorris.

An even more compelling figure resides at the heart of Erdrich's brilliant new novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. "He" is (and also is not) Father Damien Modeste, a minor figure in the earlier books, whom we meet here in 1996 as an aged priest (more than one hundred years old) still serving, despite increasing frailty, at the Ojibwe reservation denoted by the novel's title. In fact, Father Damien's last days seem devoted to the writing of successive letters sent to the pope in Vatican City, in which the priest argues against the claims to beatification (and eventually sainthood) made on behalf of the intemperate Sister Leopolda, identified by Father Damien as "one Sister Leopolda Puyat, recently (though perhaps not entirely) deceased."

In the first of several lengthy flashbacks, Erdrich reveals the novel's startling premise: Father Damien is actually a woman, Agnes De Witt, who had assumed the identity of the real Father Damien (her former mentor, a flood victim) and taken his place as pastor to the Ojibwes.

A quantity of dramatic (indeed, melodramatic) background action is rather ponderously set forth in the novel's early pages. We learn that Agnes, in the wake of a bad marriage, entered a midwestern convent and became "Sister Cecelia," later leaving it abruptly when she was forbidden to play her beloved Chopin on the piano. She lived with (but refused to marry) German immigrant farmer Berndt Vogel, who was killed attempting a rescue after Agnes had been abducted by notorious bank robber Arnold "The Actor" Anderson. Then, following her peaceful tenure as aide to the real Father Damien, having lost to flood her home, piano, and both the men she had loved, the much-bereaved, sensually and spiritually conflicted woman "became" the selfless priest.

Sacred and profane

Referring to her protagonist as both "he" and "she" (often within the same paragraph and not without occasional awkwardness), Erdrich depicts Father Damien's life largely in relation to the other inhabitants of Little No Horse. Housekeeper and nurse Mary Kashpaw (who may have murdered the man who raped her, years earlier) subsumes her own life in that of the elderly priest, accepting the faith he embodies, even sending her (irreversibly worldly) son Nector to the church, to learn for himself "whether there is something to this God."

The tribal elder Nanapush, whose rudely hilarious tall tales and incessant womanizing make him a perfect foil for Father Damien, guesses his friend's secret. And there is Father Gregory Wekkle, sent to Little No Horse as Father Damien's assistant, who endures a bizarre test of his own faith when he becomes her lover.

As always with Erdrich, other stories split off from, echo, or amplify the novel's main concerns. The most important are anecdotes detailing the experiences of Pauline Puyat/Sister Leopolda, a healer whose charitable acts appear (to Father Damien, at least) to be motivated by fantasies of revenge upon her many enemies. The priest envisions her as absorbed in "a darkness not to be assuaged by common means," sensing that her fatally divided nature has apocalyptic resonances ("was what came next, beyond the end of things. ... Yes, Leopolda was the hope and she was the poison").

One can argue that this teeming novel contains a few too many characters and subplots. Perhaps, but who would wish to sacrifice the magnificent extended description of a bloody buffalo hunt, or the vivid digressive account of Fleur Pillager's crafty vengeance upon the white entrepreneurs who had stolen her land? Nanapush's extravagant whopper of a tale about the farcical slaughter of a terrified "captive" moose is a virtuoso piece of writing that compares favorably with the best such storytelling of Faulkner and Twain at their comic peaks.

Nevertheless, it is the dual figure of Father Damien--and "his" resolve to live in the worlds of both flesh and spirit--that gives this novel its unusual resonance. Erdrich adds yet another level of qualification and complexity by placing many of Father Damien's detailed memories in his carefully considered replies to questions posed by his colleague Father Jude Miller, the emissary who is sent to investigate the enigma of Sister Leopolda.

Riddles and resolutions

Though he remains understandably, if frustratingly, opaque, we come to know a good deal about the riddle that is Father Damien. (His name may be a deliberate echo of that of the nineteenth-century Belgian priest who ministered to lepers on the Hawaiian island of Molokai and was memorialized in a famous essay by Robert Louis Stevenson.) He has lived a lie for more than eighty years; has concealed the identity of a murderer, revealed in the confessional; and embraces apostasy to the extent that he has come to honor the ways of the Ojibwe above even the most fundamental teachings of the Catholic Church: "Agnes' struggle with the Ojibwe language, the influence of it, had an effect on her prayer. For she preferred the Ojibwe word for prayer, anama'ay, with its sense of a great motion upward. She began to address the trinity as four and to include the directions."

Yet his genuine devotion to his flock and understanding of their weaknesses are evident in Father Damien's every word and deed. They occasion some of Erdrich's most memorable utterances, as when she describes the priest's forgiveness as "a long, slow, soaking rain he had caused to fall on the dry hearts of sinners."

The penultimate chapter's account of Damien's arduous last pilgrimage to nearby Spirit Island, and of the disposition of his/her body by the faithful Mary Kashpaw, achieves a lyrical beauty that continues to be felt even in the deeply ironic concluding chapter, in which his successors receive "A Fax From the Beyond."

The tortured mingling of the sacred and profane that animates this truly provocative novel is captured most memorably in the late scene in which Father Damien and Father Jude discuss the strong likelihood (backed by considerable physical evidence) that the putative Saint Leopolda, alleged maker of Christian miracles, actually committed murder. In that case, Father Damien wonders aloud, "What weighs more, the death or the wonder?"

Is Father Damien's "lie," one might ask as well, the correlative to Sister Leopolda's violent crime? Erdrich provides no simple answers-- except perhaps implicitly, by suggesting that we all wear masks, harbor secrets, contain within ourselves fragments of those, good and bad, who have gone before us. Still, these seem the appropriate and necessary questions raised by a fascinating fictional investigation into the ambiguities of gender, love, faith, and truth--and a sturdy addition to the many mansions that make up Louise Erdrich's crowded, clamorous, and, for all that, warm and welcoming house of fiction.n
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Title Annotation:Review
Author:ALLEN, BRUCE
Publication:World and I
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 1, 2001
Words:3545
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