LOUISE ERDRICH HAS been heard to remark that the novelists she admires most are those who return again and again to the same questions, a description that can easily be applied to her own work. In The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Erdrich revisits many of the themes, characters, and even threads from her eight earlier novels. And though with this outing she may have finally put to rest some of the questions that have recurred in her fiction--the relationship between grief and love both familial and sexual--it has required a staggering number of characters and auxiliary plot lines to do it.
Set on a mythical Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, Last Report is the story of Father Damien Modeste, a Catholic missionary who made his debut as a minor character in Erdrich's first novel, Love Medicine (1984). We learn in the opening pages that Damien is actually a disgraced nun who arrived on the reservation in 1912 after having assumed the identity of a priest whose body she had happened upon while she was wandering, disoriented, in the aftermath of a flood. As the novel opens, the priest, more than 100 years old, is writing the last of a lifetime's worth of unanswered letters to the series of popes he has managed to outlive.
In his final dispatch, a wandering, bitter monologue he adds to nightly while "in the thrall of the grape," he begs the pope not to canonize the deceased Sister Leopolda, known before her initiation (and in Erdrich's third novel, Tracks) as Pauline Puyat. A young priest has been sent to investigate reports that the nun was frequently the vehicle for miracles. Damien has known for decades that Puyat abandoned her baby and killed its father, and desperately wishes to discourage the inquisitor. Indeed, the central dilemma of the novel is how much harm would come to the families of the Little No Horse reservation and their understanding of their history if either woman's secrets were revealed. "All would be lost," the priest frets. "Married couples he had joined would be sundered. Babies unbaptized and exposed to the dark powers. Deaths unblessed and sins again weighing on the poor sinners."
In addition to the writer's trademark intertwined timelines and story lines, this ambitious work also attempts to sketch a century of Native American history: Priest and flock suffer through epidemics, the loss of tribal land to wily carpetbaggers, and finally--in mentions so brief they qualify as asides--with the isolation of urban Indians and with reservation gambling. The plot of Last Report may revolve around a would-be saint, but the characters who inhabit the many tangled tales that make up this novel are never merely good or evil. "Father Damien was both a robber and a priest," Erdrich writes. "For what is it to entertain a daily deception? Wasn't he robbing all who looked upon him? Stealing their trust?"
In the end, each of the personalities that have found their way back into Erdrich's work are supremely complicated, as capable of deceit and destruction as they are of mercy and forgiveness.