It’s a tricky business, the matter of writing fiction in this day and age. Which do you crave more: the fortune that comes with best seller lists and talk show appearances, or the possibly unnoticed but laudable experience of telling an original story? There are a handful of writers, many of them women, who have managed to do the latter and stumble upon the former, Barbara Kingsolver being perhaps the most successful. Another is Louise Erdrich. In her new novel, The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse, Erdrich draws upon characters from her past work.
”Last Report” is meditative and almost dreamlike in its languorous, distant tone, which is all the more ironic since Erdrich’s story is about as over the top as they come. Here we return to the extraordinary life of Father Damien (he has also appeared in Erdrich’s ”Tracks” and ”Love Medicine”), a priest who has tended to a Native American reservation for almost the whole of the 20th century. But Damien is, in fact, a woman who, after losing her lover, disavows her gender to find God. Through Damien, we meet the priest’s flock, a group of loopy and endearing characters who live caught between tradition and modernism, embracing both the word of God and the whispers of ancient spirits. Interwoven through the novel is an unsolved murder, but Erdrich’s gift lies in unraveling characters rather than mysteries, and in her stunning, off the cuff descriptions (a horse is ”old and made of brutal velvet”).
Ultimately, Erdrich’s book is not as wondrous as some of its parts. Because of its almost too respectful investigation of what drives the heart, we never quite get under the skin of the characters, a problem when the book’s central figure has made a stunning decision we never fully understand. And when, two thirds of the way through the novel, a scene arrives that induces riotous laughter, we are reminded not only of Erdrich’s great sense of humor but of the fact that it has not leapt into the pages earlier. Still, Erdrich brings such glory and reverence to the stuff of everyday lives that we forgive much.