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Louise Erdrich finds more miracles

The eighth novel from the author of 'Love Medicine'

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Any summary of Louise Erdrich's new novel risks crimping its striking variety and imaginative power. "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse" is one of those wonderful books that's as memorable for its parts as it is for its whole. (Excerpts have already appeared in The New Yorker.)

The story returns to the Ojibwe natives of North Dakota depicted in her earlier novels, including "Love Medicine," for which she won the National Book Critics Circle Award in 1983. Although fans will recognize characters from those books, this novel approaches the community from a distance, in the voice of an unusual stranger.

Agnes DeWitt, of rural Wisconsin, would have spent her quiet life teaching in the convent were it not for her love of Chopin. So passionate is her playing that the other nuns wake in a troubling sweat. When the Mother Superior removes the piano stool, Agnes plays on her knees. Asked to stop, she takes off her habit and wanders back into the world.

She has the good fortune to find a man who loves her as much as she loves music, but just as her heart expands to include him, she's widowed in one of the novel's many spectacular episodes. Alone, homeless, and drowning in an awesome flood, she finds the body of a dead priest tangled in a tree and steals his identity.

It's an outrageous move for Agnes and Erdrich, the sort of gender-bending gimmick that threatens the novel's seriousness. But great triumphs arise from great risks, and "The Last Report" transcends its transsexual plot to stand firmly on the bedrock of human nature. In both conception and execution, it's a marvelous accomplishment.

Before Agnes arrives at Little No Horse in 1912 as Father Damien, she has never seen an American Indian. Living "the most sincere lie a person could ever tell," she walks with bloodied feet into a community ravaged by disease and sapped by clever lumbermen.

"In that period of regard," when she first sees her modest cabin, "the unsettled intentions, the fears she felt, the exposure she already dreaded, faded to a fierce nothing, a white ring of mineral ash left after the water had boiled away. There would be times that she missed the ease of moving in her old skin, times that Father Damien was pierced by womanness and suffered. Still, Agnes was certain now that she had done the right thing. Father Damien Modeste had arrived here. The true Modeste who was supposed to arrive - none other. No one else."


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