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, he dreads the discovery of his physical identity, for he is a woman who has lived as a man.
Sister Leopolda is one of contemporary American literature's great opportunists of conscience, and she poses problems when it comes to conversion ... As the novel darts back and forth in time over the span of almost a century, Father Damien leads a 'huge life' at the settlement of Little No Horse, so different from the one he might have lived when we meet him, early in the novel, as 'a farm woman with a beautiful piano' ... Erdrich takes us farther back in time than she ever has, so far back that she comes, in a sense, to the edge of the reservation that has been her fictional world. What makes it possible is the Ojibwa language, which is both as fresh and as ancient as rain.
...somewhat loosely told but quite evocative and moving ... Yet while Father Damien's story is the thread that holds Erdrich's novel together, it is but one strand in its complex design. Erdrich also weaves in the colorful sagas of reservation characters ... These ancillary stories provide intriguing glimpses into the Ojibwe culture and constitute the novel's brightest and most touching patches ... Although the language in some sections is evocative and pure, other passages are clunky, overwrought and downright confusing. But while the threads of Erdrich's work seem to grow a bit tangled here and there, viewed from a bit of a distance and taken in as a whole, the novel's flaws become part of the intricate pattern.
...her most ambitious yet, bringing together a range of characters scattered throughout her fiction ... Throughout the narrative, and often on the same page, s/he is referred to by both names, not only underlining her dual identity, but also symbolising and dramatising the conflicts and ambiguities at the heart of the novel ... Erdrich's precise lyricism is rightly acclaimed, but she has an occasional tendency to overwrite and to launch into flights of surreal humour – suggesting a wry smile at the quirks of fate – that are weird to the point of jarring. Much more successful is her ability to encompass, in her encyclopaedic scope, a profound sense of the astonishing range of human yearning: the ways in which people and communities find the love, laughter and meanings they need to get through.