Friday, August 15, 2008

The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse


Louise Erdrich

This book, one of Erdrich's ongoing sequence of novels about Native American life on an Ojibwe reservation in North Dakota, tells the tale of her exploration of the interlocking lives of several generations of characters from her fictional reservation works beautifully as a reprise of all that has come before: the action, centered on the life of a priest who served the reservation for nearly a century, jumps back and forth in time. Her story is glimpsed through Father Damien, who is, in fact, Agnes De Witt, the common-law wife of a murdered German farmer, who through a typically absurd sequence of events, finds her mission in life by impersonating a dead priest. As Father Damien, in his (her) 90s and nearing death, attempts to explain to a younger priest why Sister Leopolda should not be made a saint, we experience the history of the reservation from the unique point of view of an outsider who gradually, under the tutelage of the wise and hysterically funny Nanapush, throws in her spiritual lot with the Ojibwe.
This is Erdrich writing at the peak of her powers, embracing both the earthy sensuality and abiding spirituality of her characters and energizing the whole with a raucous humor that is at once self-deprecating and life-enhancing.


Chapter One

Naked Woman Playing Chopin
1910-1912

Eighty-some years previous, through a town that was to flourish and past a farm that would disappear, the river slid -- all that happened began with that flow of water. The town on its banks was very new and its main street was a long curved road that followed the will of a muddy river full of brush, silt, and oxbows that threw the whole town off the strict clean grid laid out by railroad plat. The river flooded each spring and dragged local backyards into its roil, even though the banks were strengthened with riprap and piled high with rocks torn from reconstructed walls and foundations. It was a hopelessly complicated river, one that froze deceptively, broke rough, drowned one or two every year in its icy run. it was a dead river in some places, one that harbored only carp and bullheads. Wild in others, it lured moose down from Canada into the town limits. When the land along its banks was newly broken, paddleboats and barges of grain moved grandly from its source to Winnipeg, for the river flowed inscrutably north. Across from what would become church land and the town park, over on the Minnesota side, a farm spread generously up and down the river and back into wide hot fields.

The bonanza farm belonged to easterners who had sold a foundry in Vermont and with their money bought the flat vastness that lay along the river. They raised astounding crops when the land was young -- rutabagas that weighed sixty pounds, wheat unbearably lush, corn on cobs like truncheons. Then six grasshopper years occurred during which even the handles on the hoes and rakes were eaten and a U.S. cavalry soldier, too, partially devoured while he lay drunk in the insects' path. The enterprise suffered losses on a grand scale. The farm was split among four brothers, eventually, who then sold off half each so that by the time Berndt Vogel escaped the latest war of Europe, during which he'd been chopped mightily but inconclusively in six places by a lieutenant's saber and then kicked by a horse so ever after his jaw didn't shut right, there was just one beautiful and peaceful swatch of land about to go for grabs. In the time it would take for him to gather the money -- by forswearing women, drinking cheap beers only, and working twenty-hour days -- to retrieve it from the local bank, the price of that farm would drop further, further, and the earth rise up in a great ship of destruction. Sails of dust carried half of Berndt's lush dirt over the horizon, but enough remained for him to plant and reap six fields.

So Berndt survived. On his land there stood a hangarlike barn that once had housed teams of great blue Percherons and Belgian draft horses. Only one horse was left, old and made of brutal velvet, but the others still moved in the powerful synchronicity of his dreams. Berndt liked to work in the heat of this horse's breath. The vast building echoed and only one small part was still in use-housing a cow, chickens, one depressed pig. Berndt kept the rest in decent repair not only because as a good German he must waste nothing that had come his way but because he saw in those grand dust-filled shafts of light something he could worship.

The spirit of the farm was there in the lost breath of horses. He fussed over the one remaining mammoth and imagined one day his farm entire, vast and teeming, crews of men under his command, a cookhouse, bunkhouse, equipment, a woman and children sturdily determined to their toil. A garden in which seeds bearing the scented pinks and sharp red geraniums of his childhood were planted and thrived.

How surprised he was to find, one morning, as though sown by the wind and summoned by his dreams, a woman standing barefoot, starved, and frowzy in the doorway of his barn. She was pale but sturdy, angular, a strong flower, very young, nearly bald and dressed in a rough shift. He blinked stupidly at the vision. Light poured around her like smoke and swirled at her gesture of need. She spoke with a low, gravelly abruptness: "Ich habe Hunger."

By the way she said it, he knew she was a Swabian and thereforehe tried to thrust the thought from his mind-possessing certain unruly habits in bed. She continued to speak, her voice husky and bossy. He passed his hand across his eyes. Through the gown of nearly transparent muslin he could see that her breasts were, excitingly, bound tight to her chest with strips of cloth. He blinked hard. Looking directly into her eyes, he experienced the vertigo of confronting a female who did not blush or look away but held him with an honest human calm. He thought at first she must be a loose woman, fleeing a brothel -- had Fargo got so big? Or escaping an evil marriage, perhaps. He didn't know she was from God.
Sister Cecilia

In the center of the town on the other side of the river there stood a convent made of yellow bricks. Hauled halfway across Minnesota from Little Falls brickworks by pious drivers, they still held the peculiar sulfurous moth gold of the clay outside that town. The word Fleisch was etched in shallow letters on each one. Fleisch Company Brickworks. Donated to the nuns at cost. The word, of course, was covered by mortar each time a brick was laid. Because she had organized a few discarded bricks behind the convent into the base for a small birdbath, the youngest nun knew, as she gazed at the mute order of the convent's wall, that she lived within the secret repetition of that one word...

No comments: