Sadaf Ayaz Professor Yelizaveta Shapiro Eng 32000-02: Multi-ethnic American Literature 08/09/2017
While topics relating to the transgender community often involve complex discussions, and in general books that write about members of it try to create an understanding of the concept, Erdrich’s The Last Report in Little No Horse explores a new concept relating to it. Or perhaps, the books was never meant to be about a transgender character at all.
Throughout the book, Erdrich switches cleverly between the personas of Sister Celia, Agnes, and Father Damien–all of which reside in one body. Sometimes referred to as she and other times as he, it is quite confusing to put Agnes within a box.
At one point in the novel, in confusion, I couldn’t help but create a comparison with the character of the Agnes outside of Sister Celia, Agnes, and Father Damien (will be referred to as The Agnes from here on forth), with my acting class. Although a short passage, it revealed a lot about The Agnes.
“Father Damien didn’t want to pray. Nevertheless Agnes went down on her knees and spoke earnestly aloud. There was no answer but the howl of wind rattling shingles, the mice drifting in the waves. There was no wood for a fire. No water but ice. Enough, she thought. Wearily, she climbed into Father Hugo’s deathbed. She wrapped herself tightly into the death robes, slept.” (Erdrich, 66)
Most transgender characters in fiction are portrayed to have had a confusion within themselves, an ache to do as the people of the other sex do, to dress like them, to talk like them. To find a grave difficulty separating themselves from them. It’s something they’ve felt a strong desire for that perhaps wasn’t evident throughout their life, but with a keener look held all the right signs to make the desire understandable and in a way always evident.
The Agnes completely goes against this rule. She never seemed to have had a desire to be a man from her earlier memories. She is in every sense a female with a very feminine persona. There seems to be no hint of even admiration of the male gender aside from a sexual one and the switch from Agnes to Father Damien seemed to be less of a transgender but rather one an actor would go through.
Like actors, The Agnes has a sharp attention to details regarding the life and character of the individuals she portrays and to the best of her ability, she uses those details to make her characters more believable. Like an actor who wants to live the lives of many and have the experiences they wouldn’t have as themselves, The Agnes uses her different characters to live her different lives and explore and experience the different personas that live within her.
This can further be reinforced with The Agnes’ list on her transformation into Father Damien on page 74. It’s not a matter of inner struggle or acceptance rather a challenge which she hopes to face head-on with the research she has done by observing countless other men.
I believe this might be the reason behind why at an old age Father Damien seems to feel such an unease. All of her life, The Agnes has lived as an imposter, claimed to be a person she was not. Played a man she had created from the life of another. Perhaps this is why Father Damien seems so restless in his writings and why The Agnes remembers her past and what she’s done and starts to realize she’s lived a life not as herself but as a character who embodied the persona she hoped she had but never could.
Maybe it is at such an old age that she realized that while she had almost completely transformed into Father Damien she not only had been deceiving others but mainly herself.
Would she be forgiven for playing a priest? Would God consider her a priest and accept her?
These questions start to bug her.
All the while, you can argue that like most transgender people, The Agnes did have a grave attachment to Father Damien which is evident in her decision to live most of her life as his character. This attachment can represent a desire to be a man. However, it can also indicate The Agnes’ admiration of power and respect that she could attain from being Father Damien–something that she wouldn’t get as a female. Perhaps The Agnes’ transformation to Father Damien is less about transgender and more towards equality of genders and the keen observation and retaliation against the norms of the society.
Hopefully, as we read forward, these concepts get clearer and a look into The Agnes’ true motives helps us in defining and understanding her actions. The story can still spine in either direction.