Kateri Tekakwitha's short, difficult life was generally bereft of blessing. Through eyes dimmed by smallpox in a face scarred by it, the 17th-century Mohawk woman witnessed privation and torture in her village near modern Auriesville, N.Y. She was abused both by European invaders and by her own people, who could not accept her embrace of Catholicism, and died at 24 in a Quebec sanctuary for native Christians.
Nonetheless, since 1980, when she was beatified (a step toward sainthood) by Pope John Paul II, she has been referred to as Blessed Kateri.
Diane Glancy, a poet and writer of Cherokee heritage who has taught English at Macalester College in St. Paul, first encountered Kateri as a figure in one of the panels of the front doors of St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan. Suspecting there was more to her character than the dryly historic or overly pious, Glancy made her the subject of "The Reason for Crows," the third in a series of stories that seek to give voice to American Indian historical figures.
And what a voice Kateri is given. "The sky is pocked by stars," she exults. "I am not alone. The Lord walks with the sky and the earth." Her spiritual vision combines Catholic mysticism, a native perspective on the natural world and her own individual sense of things, pairing fear of "this God who burns away everything he is not" with remarkable compassion for others, even for those who tormented her.
"I was hauled into death, but pulled back out," Kateri says. "I do not know why. Maybe I was set apart for the Lord. No one else would have me."
Her reverie is occasionally interrupted, but not disrupted, by the voice of the Jesuit priest (the priests are among entities embodying change, including Jesus and smallpox, that Kateri sees as crows) who baptized the young outcast.
Here and there, the stream-of-consciousness narrative slides into incoherence. But generally the words and imagery from two different worlds work well together, as in this passage: "I took religious instructions from the Jesuits. ... I saw their cross with Christ upon it, pocked with holes from thorns in his forehead, pocked with holes from nails in his hands and feet. He had known smallpox. I listened to the priests read scriptures. I always waited for the passages about the animals and the trees. Especially the trees. It was what I heard in the forest."
In the book's loveliest scene, Kateri and other Indian Christians floating in a boat on a lake at night use fire to lure fish to the surface. She looks up at the fiery haze of stars and realizes that she has "felt the hook from another world."
Despite its shots of beauty, this story of an American Indian embracing the invaders' theology of redemption through suffering won't be for everybody. But poetry lovers, American Indian historians and Catholic mystics will find it fascinating, and that is a worthy audience indeed.
Pamela Miller is a Star Tribune night metro editor.