The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

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.

Who Ate the First Oyster? By Cody Cassidy

How did humans get the way we are? Pants-wearing, horseback-riding, disease-fighting jokesters, some of whom eat oysters? Cody Cassidy has a few answers, in a book that’s far more well-researched and thoughtful than its quirky cover suggests. Who Ate the First Oyster? The Extraordinary People Behind the Greatest Firsts in History is inventive and clever, which makes it appeal to a mass audience and to those of us who yearn for a little light, but not dumb, reading. It is supported by substantial research in evolutionary biology, archaeology and anthropology, and makes innovative connections that stitch together three million years of human development. Cassidy starts at our pre-human stage, but places the most emphases on the past 300,000 years, since the arrival of the first anatomically modern Homo sapiens.

When did we begin wearing pants? As far as scientists can tell, that happened 164,000 years ago—a date that is measurable because it matches the arrival of the body louse, which evolved from the head louse. Why? What? Huh?  Apparently the louse jumped from the head of one of our ancestors and onto his clothing, which means he had clothing. Probably not pants, more likely some sort of adornment, but duds nevertheless. Cassidy calls this person Ralph, after Mr. Lauren.

We can trace horseback riding to 5,600 years ago, when anthropologists date the first known bridle, which allowed a rider to control a horse. Before that, horses were used as meat and milk (kudos to people who have the guts to milk a horse) but were too wild to consider riding. No doubt many broken bodies preceded the first successful ride, which, Cassidy notes, changed history and became the dominant from of transportation until the 20th century. It also changed economics, because those without horses could not compete for resources with those who had the beasts and could control them. Cassidy names the first rider Napoleon “in honor of Napoleon Cybulski, the Polish physiologist who first isolated adrenaline, a molecule that played no small role in this moment of inspiration.” 

The first oyster? That came because Oyster Gal—not one of Cassidy’s best choices of names—figured out how the moon affects the tides, so she could know when it was safe to go to the sea for her oysterfest. Why eat them in the first place? Because she saw other animals doing it, and surviving. Also, she was probably hungry and darn tired of eating roots.  

In a sobering and eye-opening section, Cassidy explains how the tools of warfare typically evolved from toys, and how the bow and arrow was the first weapon not to mimic nature. It was invented by a man he calls Archie, for obvious reasons. 

Cassidy personalizes his characters throughout, explaining that most early Homo sapiens could have handled a contemporary discussion or task just fine, given preparation, although they might have been shorter, with larger brows.  His names, while often witty, show an understanding of history and culture. The woman who invented fire is called Martine after a French geologist who was “jailed for witchcraft, which you can imagine is an accusation our Martine, after striking the first fire, would almost certainly have risked as well.” The first person whose name we know is Kushim, a bookkeeper who lived along the Euphrates River and signed his name on his tallies.  

Noting that Columbus was the last person to discover the Americas, he introduces us to the first, whom he calls Dersu, after the Siberian explorer Dersu Uzala. Why? You’ll have to read the book. I’ve probably told you too much already.

This is an easy read, but it offers much to think about. Chapters are digestible and short, and you can read one at a sitting, never worrying about losing the storyline. The book comes with maps and a timeline that help illustrate what is essentially a highly accessible history of the development of human civilization. Sometimes Cassidy’s conclusions feel like a stretch, but they make you think of what might have been and how it might have happened.

Pat Prijatel

 

The Likeness, by Tana French

“Some nights, if I’m sleeping on my own, I still dream about Whitethorn House.” 

The first line of Tana French’s The Likeness tells you much of what you need to know about the novel: The house is key to what happens, as are ideals of home, family, and belonging. But it all revolves around protecting the house while its spell controls and defines the lives of those who live under its graceful roof.

Central to life inside Whitethorn is Daniel, who inherited the house from his bachelor uncle, and the friends he has chosen in graduate school: Abby, Rafe, Justin, and Lexie. He’s carefully curated his friendships to build his own family, with one unbreakable rule: No pasts.

When Lexie gets murdered, her doppelganger, Detective Cassie Maddox, takes her place in the house to try to solve the crime. Adding to the mystery is the fact that, when she worked in undercover, Cassie invented Lexie. She knows that whoever this woman is, she’s not Lexie because Lexie is not real.

 What follows is a French-style psychological thriller, with an emphasis on character development, showing how people who are broken damage themselves and one another while searching for belonging. To the five main characters in this compelling narrative that means complete fealty to their homemade family. When that bond breaks, nothing else can hold.

Some of this is difficult to buy. Do the people who spend all day, every day with Lexie not notice that Cassie is a different person, no matter the physical resemblance and preparation? But it’s easy to dispel disbelief and just dig into this deeply-told tale.

A conversation between Daniel and Cassie-as-Lexie shows that Daniel understood the bargain he was making with his friends and his house:

“There’s a Spanish proverb,” he said, “that’s always fascinated me. “Take what you want and pay for it, says God.'”

“I don’t believe in God,” Daniel said, “but that principle seems, to me, to have a divinity of its own; a kind of blazing purity. What could be simpler, or more crucial? You can have anything you want, as long as you accept that there is a price and that you will have to pay it.” 

The Likeness explores that price. As in other books in the Dublin Murder Squad series, most of the pieces fall together at the end, but French leaves us to make our own sense of much of it. Just like life. 

Pat Prijatel