A New York Times Notable Book
For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved people, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man. To further complicate his quiet existence, a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Leopolda's piety and is faced with the most difficult decision: Should he tell all and risk everything . . . or manufacture a protective history though he believes Leopolda's wonder-working is motivated solely by evil?
How--and why--could such a deception last so long? That's the first mystery. The second begins when Father Jude Miller (a name familiar to readers of The Beet Queen) arrives to investigate the life of Sister Leopolda (or Pauline Puyat, another familiar name). Was Leopolda a saint? Or its opposite, whatever that is? Miracles, after all, are a part of the reservation's everyday life; for every nun's stigmata there's a secular wonder like the death of Nanapush. Indeed, the chapter detailing this old trickster's demise is the kind of earthy, tragicomic fable Erdrich does to perfection, including as it does an extended trial by moose, death by flatulence, and not one but two lustful resurrections.
Erdrich's writing is at its best when she chronicles the bittersweet humor of reservation life. It's at its worst, sadly, when she cranks up the fog machine and goes for the violins. ("He had the odd sensation that petals drifted in the air between them, petals of a fragrant and papery citrus velvet," she tells us, telegraphing Father Jude's attraction to a woman.) But at least the book's sins are sins of ambition--this is a novelist who revisits the same territory because the capaciousness of her vision demands it. Readers may forgive Erdrich's vagueness about Father Damien's religious calling, but they will never forget her images, as lovely and surprising as figures glimpsed in a dream: the devil in the shape of a black dog, his paw in a bowl of soup; freshly planted pansies, nodding at the priests' feet "like the faces of spoiled babies"; a woman in a billowing white nightdress riding a grand piano through the "gray soup" of a flood. Moments like these are small miracles of their own. --Mary Park