Marie had heard that Sister Leopolda was sick and dying, but she still couldn’t think of one good reason to go up the hill to the convent. Why should she care about an old nun who abused her and left her with a scar on the palm of her hand that pained her every Good Friday? Still, Marie can’t forget the woman, and while she badly wants to hate Leopolda, she decides to go visit her anyway, and she takes Zelda along with her.
The scar on the palm of Marie’s hand is left from Sister Leopolda’s stab wound, which Leopolda had claimed was a spontaneous manifestation of the stigmata, and it is another connection to Christianity in Marie’s life. The scar, which marks Marie as holy, hurts on Good Friday, a holy day in Christianity that commemorates Christ’s Crucifixion and death.
Others look to Sister Leopolda like she is some kind of saint, but Marie knows better. Sister Leopolda has to pray hard because she is so close to the Devil. Marie has been told that the old nun is confined to her bed, and she holds an old iron spoon that she beats on the metal bedframe to drive the evil spirits away.
Unlike when Marie was younger, she no longer believes that Sister Leopolda is automatically a righteous and good person because she is a nun. On the contrary, Leopolda is cruel and abusive, and as a representation of Christianity in the book, she makes the religion as whole appear this way as well.
Marie puts on her best dress made of purple wool and sets out to the convent with an impeccably dressed Zelda. The day is hot and dry, but Marie won’t let herself sweat in her good dress. As they walk, Marie points out the place where she first met Nector years before and tells her daughter for the first time that she had been taught by the nuns, too.
The color purple is often associated with royalty, and as Marie is now a Kashpaw, she is often viewed this way. However, purple is also associated with independence, strength, and dignity, and Marie displays each of these attributes in going to visit Leopolda.
Marie and Zelda arrive at the Sacred Heart Convent and are greeted by a pleasant nun. They are shown to Sister Leopolda’s room, where the old nun sits in complete darkness. Leopolda does not at first recognize Marie, but after Marie pulls back the curtains and allows light into the room, she knows her instantly. “Marie! Star of the Sea!” Leopolda cries. She has always known Marie would come back.
Leopolda calls Marie “Star of the Sea” just as she did years earlier when Marie first went to the convent. Of course, Leopolda believes Marie has come back to kneel before her and God, which she has, in a way, but Marie has much more power than that.
Marie sits near Sister Leopolda and tells her that she feels sorry for her illness. Leopolda tells Marie that she feels sorry for her, too, seeing how Marie is so poor she had to recycle an old Easter shroud into a dress. “I suppose you had brats with the Indian,” Sister Leopolda continues, and Marie points to Zelda and her neat appearance. Leopolda is not impressed and claims Zelda looks just like Marie. She wonders how Marie even feeds her children, and Marie assures her she does fine. After all, her husband is chairman of the tribe.
Marie badly wants Sister Leopolda to realize that she has done well in life, but Leopolda will never recognize this. She sees Marie as only a Native American (and sees this as a mark of inferiority), and this is why she isn’t impressed by Marie’s daughter, who looks just like Marie—like a Native American. Leopolda will never accept Marie no matter how successful she becomes, which again reflects America’s deep-seated racism.
Sister Leopolda tells Marie that it is her husband who has done well in life, not Marie, but Marie insists that she made Nector into the man he is. With her help and guidance, Nector became successful and has spoken in Washington and even had dinner with the governor. “No doubt,” Leopolda says, “you had a certain talent.” Marie again tells Leopolda that she is sorry Leopolda is so sick, and Leopolda tells Marie that she is sorry Marie is going to hell, and then Leopolda reaches over her head with the iron spoon and bangs it repeatedly on the metal of the bed.
The “certain talent” Leopolda refers to is undoubtedly sex, which minimalizes Marie’s role and influence in helping to make Nector the man he became. Nector is highly successful, and Marie surely deserves much of the credit, but Leopolda doesn’t consider this at all. By banging her spoon on the bed, Leopolda implies there are evil spirits near, which is to say she believes Marie is evil and going to hell simply because she is Native American.
As Sister Leopolda bangs the iron spoon on the bed, Marie knows that she must have the spoon. She tells Leopolda that they have come for her blessing, and Marie devises a secret plan to snatch the spoon while Leopolda is busy blessing Zelda. But when Leopolda blesses Zelda, she holds the spoon close, and Marie isn’t able to get at it. Marie kneels at the old woman to be blessed herself and is struck by a strange feeling. She reaches up and grabs the spoon and is pulled by the strength of the dying woman up onto the bed. Marie can’t believe the nun’s power, and they pull the spoon back and forth before Marie finally releases it. “There is nothing I can do after hating her all these years,” Marie thinks to herself.
The iron spoon, much like the iron poker that stabbed Marie, is an extension of Leopolda’s power and cruelty. If Marie can take the spoon, she figures she can, in a way, disarm Leopolda. Only Marie can’t disarm Leopolda, which implies there isn’t much Marie can do to fight the influence of white culture and she must, in a sense, let go. Marie says “there is nothing” she can do after hating Leopolda, and this suggests that Marie must let go of her hate and resentment as well.
On the walk back home, Zelda tells Marie that she is considering joining the Sacred Heart Convent. Marie listens to her daughter talk and advises her not to make any quick decisions. At home, Zelda runs into the house to change, but she soon appears at the door holding a letter with a strange look on her face. Marie asks her where she found the letter, and Zelda tells her it was under the sugar bowl. Zelda goes off to change her clothes, and Marie reads the letter. It is from Nector, and he claims he is in love with Lulu, like he has always been, and is leaving Marie.
Of course, Marie has no idea that Nector has changed his mind and is probably watching Lulu’s house burn at this exact moment. The letter is significant because it confirms what Marie has long since suspected. Marie is oddly calm as she reads Nector’s letter, and this suggests that Marie, too, understands that love is complicated and at times can be the cause of deep pain.
Marie doesn’t know what to do. She folds the letter and puts it in the pocket of her dress. She isn’t even sure if Zelda read the letter or not. Strangely, Marie isn’t angry, and she is quite convinced that it really doesn’t matter how she feels anyway. “He’s a man!” she says to herself by way of an explanation, yet she knows deep down it is a poor one. Not all men are like Nector, Marie thinks, and even Lulu’s late husband, Henry, is proof of that. Henry knew that Lulu cheated and had children by other men, but he loved them all the same.
Marie’s example of Henry as proof that not all men are bad again underscores Erdrich’s primary argument that family is more than blood ties. None of the Lamartine boys are actually Lamartines, but that matters little to Henry. However, Marie’s claim that Nector is just acting like “a man” implies that she expects him to treat her badly and break her heart, which again highlights the widespread oppression and ill-treatment of women by men in the novel.
Marie decides to peel some potatoes for dinner. Zelda usually helps her, but she isn’t around, and Marie suspects she has gone to find Nector. After peeling every potato in the house, Marie still isn’t sure what she should do, so she decides to wash and wax the floor. Marie makes it a point not to go on her knees for God or anyone else, but washing the floor is an excuse for her to kneel. Still wearing her good purple dress, Marie strips and scrubs the floor, and then waxes herself into a corner by the table. She removes the letter from her pocket and sits down.
Notably, as Marie struggles with her feelings, she escapes to domestic chores, which suggests that Marie finds comfort—and even some power—in this gendered role. Here, washing and waxing her floor is tantamount to a religious experience or prayer, one in which Marie finds clarity, catharsis, and reason, as she seems to know precisely what to do afterward.
Marie places the letter under the salt can, which sits directly next to the sugar bowl. She decides she will say nothing about the letter, and she will never mention it to Nector. She will leave him wondering “salt or sugar?” for the rest of his life. Suddenly, Marie hears Nector and Zelda outside, and then Nector appears in the doorway to the kitchen. “I just put the wax down,” Marie says to her husband. “You have to wait.”
In confusing Nector and leaving him to wonder if she ever read the letter, Marie assumes a position of power over him, which again speaks to Marie’s strength as a woman. Nector clearly respects this power and does not dare cross it—just as he does not dare cross Marie’s freshly waxed floor. In this way, Erdrich points to the sacredness of the woman’s domestic role and implies that while women are undoubtedly oppressed, there is profound power to be found in this traditional role as well.