05 January 2009

Erdrich, Louise. The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse. New York: HarperCollins Perennial, 2001.*

Set chiefly just before the First World War on a Native American reservation in North Dakota, Erdrich's National-Book-Award-Nominated novel is remarkable in the somewhat twinned nature of her protagonist, Agnes Dewitt, who leaves a convent as a young woman and flees to to north, where she meets Father Damien Modeste, who has been assigned to the reservation. After the Father dies, Agnes cuts her hair and binds her breasts and takes his clothes and heads to the reservation to do the work that he was meant to do. Erdrich handles this transformation by keeping both "characters" on the page. That is, Father Damien Modeste is the public persona that the people of the reservation know and speak to and care about, and Agnes Dewitt remains the private person who is stuck with her own memories and thoughts.

This duplicity Agnes calls "the most sincere lie she could tell" (61), and the line between truth and lies is at the center of this novel, especially once Father Jude arrives, sent by the Vatican to confirm the possible sainthood of Sister Leopolda. A sainthood that only Father Damien, still alive after 100 years, can validate.

You can see by the asterisk above that I didn't really Finish! this one. I got pretty far into it. Page 200 of 360. But there are so many books to read, and I'm really anxious to get these books on my comps list (and, as I've been thinking about it, this blog) over with. It's a good book. I mean, it was nominated for the National Book Award and all. I think my problem with it is that (a) it's an historical novel, which probably isn't actually a problem in its own right (I'm reading Beloved right now and having no trouble with it), but it's an historical novel set in the West, and for whatever reasons I can't engage in stories that take place west of the Mississippi before, oh, 1950 (I don't for instance have much interest in reading The Grapes of Wrath despite everything I've heard about how good it is); and (b) it has too many characters.

I know I just wrote about how Munro is better when she throws a lot of characters together, but from what I've read online to put together the above it seems that Erdrich is carrying over a lot of characters from previous works of fiction, and this makes a lot of sense now. I guess my first warning that the drama in this book would be generational was the two-page family tree printed just after the title page. The only other time I can remember seeing a family tree in a book was when I devoured Madeline L'Engle.

If I were 12 again, if I had nothing but time to submit myself to the entirety of a big novel's big created world....


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