ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The author is Louise Erdrich, and the book is her latest novel, "The Last Report on the Miracles at Little No Horse." It's about Father Damion Modest, a priest ministering to Ojibwa Indians on the North Dakota reservation from 1912 until almost the end of the century. The compelling secret of the novel revealed early on is that Father Damion is a woman pretending to be a man. Louise Erdrich is part Turtle Mountain Ojibwa, part German; she's a poet as well as a novelist. Her book, "Love Medicine," won the National Book Critic Circle Award in 1984. Thanks for being with us.
LOUISE ERDICH: Good to be here, thanks.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell us a little about the background of this book. What images came to you that prompted you to make Father Damion a woman?
LOUISE ERDICH: I wasn't sure that Father Damion was anyone I had written about before, and I was writing the very first part of the book in which the aged and rather discouraged priest writes once again to the Vatican hoping for an answer. And it turned out when my priest started going, getting dressed to go to bed, my priest was not a man, my priest was a woman. And I had to stop for a while after that, retreat, talk to my mother who's a devout Catholic, figure this out, and from there I went on writing the priest-- there's no secret-- as a woman.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It must have opened all sorts of possibilities for you that wouldn't have been there if she had been a man.
LOUISE ERDICH: Oh, completely. And I think I had a sympathy with the character that I must admit I might not have had -- because by the end of the book, the priest, Father Damion, the woman priest, is really converted by the people to whom she's come to minister, and it's a reverse conversion in a way.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I wanted to ask you about how much research goes into a book like this. How much is based on what you really learn about the facts and the times of that period, and how much is imagination?
LOUISE ERDICH: I do a kind of research that wouldn't qualify in any academic circles as research. I read whatever comes to me. And I go looking for things. I ferret things out, I find a lot in a small town, small town historical societies, mainly. I don't go to the big places very often. And some of the pieces that seem perhaps more, oh, to be magical or extraordinary actually are based on pieces of research and on bits of history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Would you read one of those for us and set the context for us?
LOUISE ERDICH: I'd be glad to. This piece is inspired by an old hunter's diary, and what the buffalo actually do is, from a piece of research, it's the truth, it's not magical, it's realism. "If you know about the buffalo hunts, you perhaps know that the one I describe now many generations passed, was one of the last. During that hunt, the rest of the herd did not bolt away, but behaved afterward in a chilling fashion. The surviving buffalo milled at the outskirts of the carnage, not grazing but watching with an insane intensity as one by one, swiftly and painstakingly, each carcass was dismantled. Even through the night the buffalo stayed and were seen by the uneasy hunters and their families the next dawn to have remained standing quietly, as though mourning, the relatives that lay before them skinned. At noon, the flies descended. The buzzing was horrendous. The sky went black. It was then that the sun's zenith, the light shredded by scarves of moving insects, that the buffalo began to make a sound. It was a sound never heard before. No buffalo had ever made this sound. No one knew what the sound meant, except that one old, toughened hunter sucked his breath in when he heard it, and as the sound increased, he attempted not to cry out. Tears ran over his cheeks and down his throat anyway, wetting his shoulders, for the sound gathered power until everyone was lost in the immensity. The sound was heard once, and never to be heard again. That sound made the body ache; the mind pinch shut. An unmistakable and violent grief, it was as though the earth itself was sobbing. The buffalo were taking leave of the earth, and all they loved, so the old chiefs and hunters after years had passed and they could tell what split their hearts."
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I find that passage so heartbreaking.
LOUISE ERDICH: Me too, as I read it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And right below it is a line about one of the main characters in the book where you write, "she was the residue of what occurred when some of our grief- mad people trampled their own children." So you're making, you take it to talk about people, too, and really your books are about the end of a whole world. When you set out to write these books, which treat the same characters the same place most of the novel...
LOUISE ERDICH: Hm-mmm.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: ...Did you know this was what you were going to do?
LOUISE ERDICH: I had to back up, because I don't believe they're really about the end of a world. They're about the change in a world. This is an ongoing world, it's a culture, I think, it's remarkable for its resilience, and the will to survive. And as... if we go along and make this analogy, the buffalo certainly have a great renaissance and a great resurgence, and people do connect the survival and the tenacity of native cultures with the survival and the tenacity of these great plains animals, and I think there's something to be said for that kind of endurance that native people have had all this time.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And did you know when you started out that this is what you would do, you'd write about this huge period of change, and basically your family?
LOUISE ERDICH: No, I didn't. But as I let the story take me along, it began to be about change. And I really believe that all stories are about the capacity to endure change, and the experience of hanging on to what's important, love and family and work, through the great changes in history.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: This was a very, it's a very complex novel, it goes back and forth in time. Was it really hard to write? I read that it took you quite a long time.
LOUISE ERDICH: It took me a long time not so much because of the formal aspects, but because it was about a spiritual search. And I suppose I was embarked on my own. And it really was about someone who starts out as a very firm believing Catholic and, as I said, is converted slowly by the practical spirituality of the people who she's come to convert.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I happened to read one of your older novels over the weekend, and you have some characters in novels that go way back, that you have to make sure you know what they did in those novels so you're consistent.
LOUISE ERDICH: Right.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you do it?
LOUISE ERDICH: I have a secret weapon, his name is Trent Duffy, he's a wonderful copy editor who has kept track with me all along, and who works with me to make everything connect at the end of the book. I write it all, and then Trent helps me connect it all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: He must have a very complex genealogy.
LOUISE ERDICH: It's so complicated, and finally it's in the books, in the end papers, because readers kept coming up to me with these painfully constructed family trees and saying, "is this right?" And I really felt that I was obliged to do it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is your next novel going to be about the same families?
LOUISE ERDICH: It hasn't been so far. It's called "The Master Butcher Singing Club." And it really is inspired by the fact of the German side of my family, on that side my grandfather belonged to a master butcher singing club.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I'll look forward to that, too. Louise Erdrich, thank for being with us.
LOUISE ERDICH: Thanks so much, good to talk to you.