This book chronicles the life of a former nun who, through a series of circumstances, becomes a priest at a fictionalized Ojibwe reservation during the last eighty years of the 20th Century
Through Father Damien, as well as other secondary characters, Erdrich explores the ideas of identity, religion and spirituality, gender and power. Through the stories of the Ojibwe, the mixed-bloods and the European-descended Americans, she weaves issues of tolerance and understanding and the slow stripping away of one culture by another. I find these issues compelling, and the way Erdrich explores them are fairly strong. She perhaps does herself in a bit by overexplaining; for
example, in the case of a nun, part Ojibwe and part French and Polish, who the church was considering for sainthood: “In an attempt to reconcile the two worlds from which Leopolda drew spiritual sustenance, the young novice mistakenly…attempted to graft new branches onto the tree of Catholic tradition…When her efforts to meld the two cultures failed…” (p. 339). This passage is part of a passage written by the priest sent to investigate Sister Leopolda, so Erdrich at least removes herself a little bit from pointing out the obvious, and yet she does. This happens in several other places as well.
I had to read this novel for school; it is not one I would have chosen on my own, and this semester I am looking at structure as well as content. This novel fails a bit in that respect for me, too. I can concede that the Ojibwe definition of time may be fluid, and that this book in part conforms to a non-white idea of time, but I found myself spending too much time trying to figure out family alliances, which the family tree did not clear up too well; I was very confused about the ages of people and the back-and-forth structure of the novel is also confusing. At first it conforms to a back-and-forth that's easy to follow – the novel begins with a prologue taking place in 1996. From there it vaults back to the beginning of Agnes’ story (Agnes the nun who later becomes Father Damien), circa 1910-1912. Then we are thrown forward again in time to 1996, and so it goes for a while; then suddenly we're thrust into different times -- probably for a reason, but I am a linear person and found myself constantly stopping to wonder "what year is this, again? how old is everyone?" and it interfered with my reading.
The female characters are particularly strong in this work, and are definitely the more complex as compared to the male characters. It is somewhat disappointing, however, that in Erdrich’s exploration of gender /rules and authority, the only character who is not straight is minor and whose role is to move a story within the story along. Otherwise, even with all Father Damien’s subterfuge, everyone is quite straight. Although I recognize this is pretty much the pattern in the world, in a novel exploring issues of gender and power, a stronger queer character might have been useful.
The setting in the novel is strong; Erdrich’s language is absolutely gorgeous. A few examples of phrases I find particularly strong: the convent was a “blistering white” (p. 65), “the stink of ghost” (p. 79), “the thought laid his heart down” (p. 82), “withering light of the government school” (p. 170), “voluptuous nightmares” (p. 192), “electrified panic” (p. 213). There are more, of course. I recognize the importance of that in this novel – descriptors are not random; they are strong and convey emotion, as in “withering light of the government school” – many readers have some notion of what the US did to Native American children. And “voluptuous nightmares” – that is self-explanatory and so incredibly strong. All kinds of naughty images pop into one’s mind thanks to those two simple words, not usually seen together. It is Erdrich’s language that impresses me the most.