Reviewed by Eileen Quinn Knight, Ph.D.
The North Dakota world of interrelated Native American families that Erdrich has shaped into a myth of Faulknerian proportions is once again the province of her extraordinary sixth novel: a worthy companion to such triumphs as Love Medicine (1993) and The Antelope Wife (1998).
The action covers a span of nearly 90 years, and focuses primarily on two dramatic figures: "Sister Leopolda" Puyat, who has performed "miracles" of service at the Little No Horse Ojibwa reservation; and "Father Damien" Modeste, the resident priest who is actually Agnes De Witt: common-law wife of a murdered German immigrant farmer, lover of Chopin, and "Virgin of the Serpents," among other manifestations. Erdrich takes huge risks in this boldly imagined novel's early pages, which are replete with complicated exposition, while slowly building narrative and thematic bridges linking the aforementioned characters with figures familiar from her earlier fiction: stoical Fleur Pillager and her estranged, doomed children; mischief-making Gerry Nanapush, comforted and tormented by his several wives (not to mention a terrified moose, in a hilarious tall tale that's in itself a minor classic); Father Damien's stolid housekeeper (and keeper of "his" secret) Mary Kashpaw; and a very many others. Erdrich revisits and hovers over her people, recording their experiences and words and dreams, observing them from multiple perspectives and in various contexts. The result is a remarkably convincing portrayal of Native American life throughout this century—with the added dimension of an exactingly dramatized and deeply moving experience of spiritual conflict and crisis. The question of Sister Leopolda (a paragon of charity who may also have been a murderer) is posed unforgettably: "What weighs more, the death or the wonder?" And the passion of Father Damien, which climaxes with a gravely beautiful pilgrimage, is, throughout the story, a wonder to behold.
Comparisons to Willa Cather (particularly her Death Comes for the Archbishop) as well as Faulkner now seem perfectly just. That's how good Erdrich has become.