Biblical in nature and scope, The Last Report is replete with floods, snakes, sin, and forgiveness. Father Damien Modeste has lovingly served the Ojibwe settlement of Little No Horse for eight decades, forming his life around their needs. He may well be a saint. But he’s also a woman. Behind his priestly garb he’s actually Agnes, who transformed herself into a Catholic priest after living a full life as a Catholic nun, farm wife, and general adventurer, with random interactions with outlaws, floods, dead cows, and Chopin.
The epic tale of Agnes’s early life requires a total suspension of disbelief as she faces one passion after another, often losing herself in Chopin to such a degree that she ends up ecstatic and naked on the piano bench. This, not surprisingly, gets her kicked out of the convent. She finds love with a German farmer who dies defending her but leaves her his prosperous farm. Then Agnes gets caught in a disastrous flood, which sends her down the river in her wispy white nightdress, hanging on to her grand piano. When she lands, she finds a dead priest hanging in a tree, so she takes his dry clothes and his identity.
As one does.
This novel follows Agnes until she is over 100 and deeply entrenched in being Father Damien, while maintaining vestiges of her real, feminine self. She wraps her breasts tightly to hide her feminine identity and learns the rules of being a man, as she defines early in the book:
1.Make requests in the form of orders.
2. Give compliments in the form of concessions.
3. Ask questions in the form of statements.
4. Exercise to enhance the muscles of the neck?
5. Admire women’s handiwork with copious amazement.
6. Stride, swing arms, stop abruptly, stroke chin.
7. Sharpen razor daily.
8. Advance no explanations.
9. Accept no explanations.
10. Hum an occasional resolute march.
Despite her subterfuge, the Ojibwe know she’s a woman and are just fine with her pretending to be a man, although they don’t understand the necessity.
In one delightful section, Nanapush, an elder Agnes has learned to admire and love, questions her during a game of chess. He knows Agnes wants to keep her femininity a secret, so Nanapush chooses to address her during an especially tricky move because, quite simply, he wants to win the game:
“What are you?” he said to Damien, who was deep in a meditation over his bishop’s trajectory.
“A priest,” said Father Damien.
“A man priest or a woman priest?”
Agnes panics until she realizes Nanapush is really only curious.
“I am a priest,” she whispered, hoarsely, fierce.
“Why,” said Nanapush kindly, as though Father Damien hadn’t answered, to put the question to rest, “Are you pretending to be a man priest?”
Why, indeed? Because the Catholic church doesn’t allow women to be priests and, throughout the book, when asked who she really is, Agnes consistently answers: “I am a priest.” A lover asks it, a papal investigator asks it, Agnes asks it of herself. Why: Because I am a priest.
The book encourages comparisons with other classics, from Death Comes for the Archibishop, by Willa Cather,to Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, with a little Faulker and Shakespeare thrown in, plus a bit of the Bible.
Erdrich’s reprises her most memorable Ojibwa characters—Fleur and her daughter Lulu, plus the Nanapushes, Kashpaws and the Puyats—which she introduced in previous novels (Love Medicine, Four Souls, Tracks). The book stands on its own, although it makes you want to read more to get the backstory on these people working hard to live a life of truth.
Chapter 18, La Mooz, Or the Death of Nanapush, is a classic, worth reading by itself. Perhaps more than once. And the sections on Mary Kashpaw, from the very beginning (her aggressively terrible coffee) to the end and her final, silent care for Agnes/Damien, are heart-rending yet beautiful, a picture of true love.
What’s the miracle? There are many: the people, the land, the priest.