For more than a half century, Father Damien Modeste has served his beloved Native American tribe, the Ojibwe, on the remote reservation of Little No Horse. Now, nearing the end of his life, Father Damien dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man.
To further complicate his quiet existence, a troubled colleague comes to the reservation to investigate the life of the perplexing, possibly false saint Sister Leopolda. Father Damien alone knows the strange truth of Leopolda’s piety, but these facts are bound up in his own secret. He is faced with the most difficult decision: Should he tell all and risk everything… or manufacture a protective history for Leopolda, though he believes her wonder-working is motivated solely by evil?
My friend and I picked this book out for our Seattle Public Library Adult Summer Book Bingo cards, which required a book written by a past or present Seattle Arts & Lectures speaker. It’s not really the genre of book either of us would typically pick up (leaning more towards the YA, mystery, fantasy, and sci-fi camps), so we were both glad that SPL Book Bingo forced us to go outside our bubbles and read this wonderful book. I especially recommend this book to anyone who enjoys complicated characters, beautiful and intimate imagery, drifting narratives not overly concerned with chronology, and a plethora of moments that are just as sad as they are hilarious.
Discussion questions below the cut!
The structure of this novel is rather unusual, as it drifts constantly across time, sometimes without any strong markers of where we are in the narrative’s chronology. Why do you think Erdrich chose this structure for this particular story? What does it lend to the novel that a more linear chronology would have lacked? Did you ever find yourself confused, or did you enjoy the somewhat unfocused and tangential quality of the storytelling?
In this novel about religion and spirituality, we have a couple major contrasts between different types of faith: Leopolda vs. Father Damien, and Nanapush vs. Father Damien. While Father Damien is a representative of Catholicism, Nanapush is a representative of his trickster namesake Nanabozho and by extension larger Ojibwe mythology. Yet, while Father Damien and Leopolda, both Catholics, clash viciously in the manner by which they express their faith, Father Damien and Nanapush are close friends who enjoy each other’s company. Why do you think Nanapush has such an attractive personality for Father Damien? What about him does Father Damien value?
Within in the Catholic church, this is the general process for becoming a saint:
- Wait five years, so that emotions can settle and the case can be evaluated objectively. (This can be waived by the Pope.)
- Open an investigation as to whether the person lived their life with sufficient holiness and virtue to be considered for sainthood.
- If the person’s life has sufficient evidence of holiness, good works, and signs that people have been drawn to prayer through their example, they are designated as living a life of “heroic virtue” by the Pope.
- A miracle must be clearly attributed to prayers made to this person after their death (showing that they are already in Heaven and able to intercede with God on others’ behalf). (The exception is a martyr who died for their faith.)
- A second miracle must be attributed to prayers made to this person. The Pope then canonizes them as a saint.
What do you personally feel constitutes a saint? Do you think Father Damien is a saint? How about Leopolda?
Erdrich frequently uses untranslated Ojibwe phrases in this novel – not an unusual choice for an author writing about culture clash, but still a deliberate choice to be made. Why do you think Erdrich made that choice in this novel? What purpose do these phrases serve, and what did their appearance make you feel or understand throughout the novel?
Religion is, of course, a major theme of this novel. How do you think your personal religious history interacted with the portrayal of religion in this book? Did it change your personal understanding of or feelings toward Catholicism in any way?
Father Damien, when considering the Ojibwe language, remarks upon how nouns in Ojibwe are not gendered but rather are designated as either animate or inanimate. Since language is intrinsically tied to culture, we might also see this as a direct expression of the way that Little No Horse Ojibwe residents have a more cavalier attitude toward Father Damien’s gender. Do you feel that English is an inherently gendered language? Consider pronouns, but also consider whether verbs or adjectives must be gendered when speaking. Are there times when English constricts us to a gender binary expression, or is there always a means to evade it?
This book is the sixth in Erdrich’s loosely connected series of books revolving around the various families living in the area of Little No Horse. Do you feel there were aspects of the book you would have enjoyed more if you had read the other five books first?
When looking back on his life and what he has done for those in his spiritual care, Father Damien values most of all the forgiveness he has offered them. Do you agree with Father Damien’s perspective? Where and when do you seek out forgiveness in your own life? Is it something which you value receiving?
Father Damien writes to the Pope throughout his lifetime, and yet the Pope does not reply until after Father Damien is dead. Was that moment comedic for you or tragic? Were you satisfied by the ending? Why or why not?