Louise Erdrich thrives on queer theory, constantly tempting the borders of gender expression. The Last Report on the Miracles of Little No Horse impressively confused me in terms of gender, specifically in regard to Agnes/Father Damien. My realization that Agnes and Father Damien were the same person came embarrassingly late in the novel. More accurately, I wasn’t sure on the details of Father Damien. Thankfully, some of my assumptions were clarified by Mix-ups, Messes, Confinements, and Double Dealings, by Jeffry Iovonnone. For example, I was reassured in my assumption that Agnes took on a former holy man’s identity. I find the title of Iovonnone’s essay amusing and reassuring, because the multiple identities that Agnes/Damien assume reminded me instantly of a Shakespearean character. There are many reasons why the characters in Shakespeare assume alternative identities, but they all boil down to power.
Perhaps, in a more subtle way, Erdrich is hinting at the role gender has in relationship to power. The protagonist in Little No Horse is troubled by an overwhelming identity crisis that begins with her queer attraction to the music of Chopin. When she is not playing his music, she is lost; even heartbroken At this time, she is Sister Cecilia (patron saint of music) but she developed an “unsaintly” relationship with Chopin, “Such was her innocence that she didn’t know she was experiencing a sexual climax, but believed rather that what she felt was the natural outcome of this particular nocturne played to the utmost of her skills” (Erdrich, 28). That Iovonnone detects jab at heteronormativity here is reassuring as well. Not only will this character prove to be atypical in gender, but in sexuality as well. Agnes/Damien/Cecilia develops a connection to music the way other characters develop connections to each other. In this scenario, however, Cecilia is not in power. She is under the command of the Mother Superior, and unique her connection to music is therefore restricted.
After the scene on page 41, where Agnes is shot by “The Actor,” I was quite flustered. My reaction was “What the hell just happened?” and I think that reaction is expected. This seems to begin the second phase in the identity crisis. She is unhappy without her husband, but also has trouble remembering who he is. “Now that she remembered him, the place [farm] was treacherous with the raw ache of memory that returned in unexpected bits, then vanished before she could get the whole of it firmly laid out in her mind” (Erdrich, 51). She is still not in control of herself, whomever that may be. When she takes on Father Damien’s identity, she is still not entirely comfortable. “Tomorrow, she thought, I’ll get rid of this cassock and be Agnes DeWitt again, formerly Sister Cecilia, who has lived enough for two women and two nuns already, let alone a mission priest.” Despite her confusion however, she manages to reach a solution. She commits to the identity of Father Damien as “the true lie…the most sincere lie a person could ever tell” (Erdrich, 72). In this moment, is she being sincere to herself, or simply committing to an identity that will ensure her survival and power? If she had converted herself back to Agnes, could she have held the respect to freely say that answers are not always black and white?
In his discussions with Father Jude, Damien states that he “cherishes” irregular behavior (queerness). He says “I have never seen the truth without crossing my eyes. Life is crazy… it is our job to understand it… [and] anything of a large nature will create problems” (149). This character is well aware of her expectations as a man and woman, and knows when to enact particular gender constructions. As Agnes, she knows that her questions would be limited, but as Damien, he could ask questions with “frankness and ease” (Erdrich, 76). The more I think about Agnes/Damien, the more I am reminded of the power we associate with different identities. Erdrich continues to illustrate the importance of respecting humanity in all it’s queerness. Whether she confronts race, sexuality, gender, age, ethnicity, religion (etc), she writes to expose any and all combinations of these identities as legitimate choices and occurrences.
The role of Father Damien allowed the protagonist to reflect on gender publicly (or at least with a few people). Would this be possible if he/she chose to resume the role of Agnes/Cecilia?
Considering the following quotations, who can be granted the authority to label another as “queer?”
“Robes or not, I am human” (Erdrich, 76).
“The priest is unusual, but then, who among the zhaaganaashiwug is not strange?” (Erdrich, 78).