Listening to a Language Not Our Own: Reading Louise Erdrich’s The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse

June 28, 2017

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse tells the story of Agnes DeWitt, an ex-nun who serves the Ojibwe people of North Dakota for almost a century, disguised—in Shakespearean fashion—as a male priest. Outlandish as this premise may sound, the novel should be considered a contemporary spiritual classic—the rhapsodic journey of a person of faith who encounters Christ as revealed in the faces of those she seeks to serve.

Sister Cecilia, formerly known as Agnes DeWitt, is a woman who has entered a convent and donned a nun’s habit in order to pursue a religious life. And this religious life finds expression in the music she plays as the convent’s pianist. But her music—her art—also complicates her religious calling, eventually ending her vocation as a nun after she discovers and—quite literally—falls in love with Chopin.

Sister Cecilia leaves the convent and becomes Miss Agnes DeWitt again, all because of her musical, mystical encounter with a dead composer. She then finds herself a companion to a farmer named Berdnt, whom she later marries. Their love is described in the same sensuous way as her encounters with Chopin.

Both Chopin and Berdnt speak to her in languages foreign to her, and what they speak changes her. She is unsettled by Chopin’s music, as she is by Berndt’s love for her, and she returns to Chopin’s music in her grief after Berndt is shot and killed by a renegade bank robber (31-32). After Berndt’s funeral, Agnes plays Chopin again, losing herself in the music, allowing the music to give voice to her grief, until a freak spring flood washes through her farmhouse and floats her on her piano out of the house and downriver (38-39).

She survives the flood, saved by a man who reminds her of Berndt but who she later comes to recognize as the Christ she’d once adored in the convent, though with gentle hands “brutalized and heavy from work” (43). After this mystical encounter with Christ, she finds the drowned body of a Catholic priest tangled in a tree. She recognizes the priest—a Father Damien Modeste who had stopped at her house on his way north to convert the Ojibwe of North Dakota.

Agnes looks at the priest’s corpse hanging from the tree and prays “for a sign”—what to do (44)? But she already knows what to do. She takes Father Damien’s clothes as her own and feels her old life—her love of Chopin and Berndt—fade in light of this rediscovered love of Christ. This is where the wisdom of the novel is first encountered—the wisdom that guides Agnes’ ministry as Father Damien.

Unlike the original priest, Agnes does not seek to convert the Ojibwe, even though she is encouraged to do so by a nun called Sister Hildegarde, who tells her to convert the “poor Indians” while they “are dying out” due to the “sweating fever” (70-71). Agnes resists this temptation—the colonial, religious logic of the time—and refuses to exploit the suffering of these people.

Her mission, she feels, is different from the original Father Damien’s.

Instead of seeking to convert the Ojibwe, she determines to be a thick cloth—to “accept” and to “absorb” (74). Her mission is to be open to Christ as revealed in her indigenous neighbors, an echo of Lakota author Richard Twiss’ plea in Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys: A Native American Expression of the Jesus Way (IVP, 2015). Agnes, in light of her newfound calling, sets about living as a neighbor among the Ojibwe, visiting them and learning their language and culture, trying to help in tangible ways like tending to the sick and feeding the hungry. She allows herself to be rebuffed by the Ojibwe, mocked by them, made the butt of their jokes, and, eventually, loved by them.

This love is best seen in the character of Mary Kashpaw, the daughter of old Kashpaw, the first Ojibwe to meet Agnes when she arrived on the reservation. Mary Kashpaw shows Agnes what it means to be loved by the people she has come to serve. She sticks with Agnes through the horrors of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, helping Agnes (as Father Damien) to minister to the sick and dying.

During this time, Agnes feels abandoned by Christ, against whom she angrily rails for not alleviating the suffering of the Ojibwe. But, in the midst of her psalmic anger and despair, she experiences this epiphany:

Christ was before right now, breaking the trail. An amazed strength flowed into Agnes’ legs and she stumbled through the snow, reaching. Crying out, “Wait, wait, I am coming!” (123)

Agnes’ faith is rekindled with this glimpse of Christ in her companion Mary, as her faith is rekindled repeatedly in the homes and sweat lodges of the Ojibwe, and through her encounters with people like the irascible Nanapush, who, according to Sister Hildegarde, is particularly resistant to conversion.

But Agnes never tries to convert Nanapush or any other Ojibwe person.

Instead, she listens to them and learns from them.

The novel is, after all, not a story about conversion, but about being open to how God reveals God’s self in others. It’s a story about a Christian—Agnes—learning to see Christ in people who have historically suffered at the hands of Christians.

The novel rightly rebukes Christians for the parts they have played and continue to play in this history of exploiting, vilifying, and marginalizing native North American peoples. But the novel also—in the ministry of Agnes DeWitt as Father Damien—offers us this Gospel truth: When we feel most abandoned by God, perhaps that’s when Christ is trying to speak to us in a language not our own, in the voices of our neighbors.

About the Author
  • Samuel Martin is the author of the story collection This Ramshackle Tabernacle (2010), shortlisted for Canada's BMO Winterset Award, and the novel A Blessed Snarl (2012), nominated for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award (2012). His stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in Canadian and American publications, including Image and Relief. And he teaches contemporary literature and creative writing at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

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