Marie is 14 years old and quite naive. She believes that no other reservation girl has ever prayed as hard as she does, and the women up the hill will not be able to ignore her anymore. She is going up the hill to join the Sacred Heart Convent, and she is sure the nuns will accept her. After all, Marie thinks, she doesn’t “have that much Indian blood.”
Erdrich’s novel does not follow a linear timeline, nor does it follow a single point of view. The novel shifts between characters and time periods, offering multiple perspectives, often of the same event. Here, Marie tells the story of when she went to join the convent, which again underscores the importance of Christianity in Marie’s life, but it also reflects the racism she is forced to endure as a young Native American woman. Marie thinks that the nuns will accept her because she doesn’t have much “Indian blood” and has lighter skin, which implies they would reject Marie if her complexion was darker.
Marie has the soul of a “mail-order Catholic” raised in the bush alone. She has sold her soul, and now she is on her way to the top of the “highest hill” on the reservation to the convent. As Marie climbs, the sun shines off the whitewashed surface of the brick building, and she is nearly blinded. The Sacred Heart Convent is a convent for nuns who can’t get along in other churches, so it doesn’t really surprise Marie that Sister Leopolda has been placed there.
The white nuns and the whitewashed church will never accept Marie—a Native American and “mail-order Catholic”—into the fold. The fact that the convent is at the top of the “highest hill” reflects not only the convent’s spiritual importance, but its association to white European culture as well. The convent sits in a position of superiority over the reservation below, and no matter how hard the indigenous people pray or work to conform, they will never be accepted.
Marie thinks that Sister Leopolda is just the nun to help her “rise.” Leopolda knows all about the “Dark One,” just like Marie’s grandmother, only Marie’s grandmother knows him by a different name and isn’t scared of him. Sister Leopolda always carries an oak pole in her classroom, which is meant for opening high windows, but she uses it to catch Satan. If she sees Satan entering the minds or mouths of her students, she strikes them with the pole. Sister Leopolda claims that the “Dark One wants [Marie] most of all,” and Marie has always believed her.
Marie believes that she will “rise” in social status if she is accepted by the nuns, which aligns with the racist assumptions of mainstream America. The “Dark One,” or the Devil, wants Marie most of all, Leopolda claims, because Marie is a Native American. Ironically, Leopolda assumes that Marie is somehow inferior because of her race, but it is Leopolda who proves herself to be a despicable woman who beats children with a pole and physiologically tortures them by carrying it around.
Sister Leopolda is the nun that has sponsored Marie to come up the hill to the convent. Marie has other options—her light skin means she can have any man on the reservation—but she longs for Sister Leopolda’s “heart.” Marie’s main problem, however, is that half of the time she wants Leopolda’s heart in “love and admiration”; and the other half, Marie wants Leopolda’s “heart to roast on a black stick.”
Marie automatically assumes that Sister Leopolda is a good person and has a good heart simply because she is a white nun at the convent. Marie respects Leopolda’s station, not Leopolda herself, which is why Marie both admires Leopolda’s heart and wants to roast it on a stick.
Marie arrives at the Sacred Heart Convent, and Sister Leopolda answers the door. She leads Marie into the kitchen and tells her that she will sleep on a cot behind the stove. Marie asks if she gets a habit (tunic), but Leopolda tells her no. They might not get along, she says to Marie, or maybe Marie won’t want to stay. For now, Leopolda says, they will do “God’s labor,” and she leads Marie to the dishes and cooking. “If this is God’s work,” Marie says, “then I’ve done it all my life.” Marie accidentally drops a cup, and it rolls beneath the stove. She reaches for the poker in Leopolda’s hand, the one used to push food to the back of the oven, but Leopolda holds the poker tight. She tells Marie to use her arm to retrieve the cup instead, so she can feel Satan’s “hellish embrace.”
Just as Marie and Zelda expect Albertine to do domestic work, “God’s labor” is gendered, domestic work as well. Marie has done “God’s labor” her whole life, which means she has always been expected to fill a domestic role in one way or another, and this again reflects the oppression of women within American society and the restricted roles they are expected fulfill. Again, Leopolda is abusive and racist, and she implies here that Marie deserves to feel Satan’s “hellish embrace” simply because she is a Native American.
As Marie bends to grab the cup, she has a strange feeling. She sees Sister Leopolda lift the poker and hears it scrape the metal of the stove above. Then Marie hears water and feels her skin begin to burn. As an entire pot of scalding hot water dumps onto Marie, Leopolda holds Marie down with her foot. She threatens to “boil” Satan out of Marie if she moves by pouring hot water in her ear. After that, Marie knows she should leave the convent, but she is reluctant. She can pray better than any of them, Marie thinks to herself.
Sister Leopolda’s treatment of Marie is absolutely abusive, and it reflects the racist assumptions of mainstream American society. Leopolda believes Marie is inherently sinful and evil because she is Native American, and while Marie doesn’t necessarily believe this, she is willing to put up with the abuse if it means she can stay at the convent and “rise.”
Sister Leopolda tells Marie that it is time to bake, and two other nuns come in the kitchen and ask Leopolda who her new girl is. “Marie. Star of the Sea,” Leopolda says. “She will shine,” Leopolda continues, “when we have burned off the dark corrosion.” Marie and Leopolda bake in silence, and then Leopolda asks Marie if her skin hurts. Marie turns and tries to leave, but Leopolda holds her back. Marie begs to leave, but Leopolda refuses to let go. Her work has just begun, Sister Leopolda says, and it is time to get the bread from the oven.
Years later, when Marie goes back to the convent to visit a dying Sister Leopolda, she again calls Marie “Star of the Sea.” Sister Leopolda implies that Marie will “shine” when her “dark corrosion” has “burned off,” meaning Marie will shine only after she fully assimilates to white culture and embraces Christianity. Of course, Marie can never assimilate enough to satisfy Leopolda, which is more evidence of the deep-seated racism that indigenous people face.
Sister Leopolda opens the oven and reaches for the bread with the long poker. As she bends over the open door, Marie kicks her as hard as she can. Leopolda lunges into the oven, but the poker lodges against the back wall, and she is able to gain her balance. “Bitch of Jesus Christ!” Marie screams. Leopolda stands and stabs Marie through the palm of her hand with the poker, then pulls the poker back and swings at Marie’s head, knocking her unconscious.
Marie’s resistance to Leopolda is evidence of her strength as a woman, particularly as a Native American woman. Marie refuses to be abused and insulted by Sister Leopolda, even if that means Marie can’t “rise” quite the same way. Marie is beginning to understand how naive she has been in coming in to the convent. Leopolda is not automatically better than Marie just because she is a white nun.
By the time Marie wakes 30 minutes later, she is on the couch in Mother Superior’s office “being worshipped” by the nuns. As Marie opens her eyes, Sister Leopolda goes to her. She has told the others of Marie’s “passion,” Leopolda says, and how the stigmata just appeared on Marie’s hand, causing her to “swoon at the holy vision.” Marie suddenly understands. Leopolda has lied to cover her tracks and instead told the other nuns it was a miracle. “Christ has marked me,” Marie says. Looking at Leopolda, Marie no longer feels confidence in her, only pity.
Ironically, Marie ends up “being worshipped” by the white nuns just as she initially wanted. The stigmata, the wounds inflicted on Christ during the crucifixion, are marks of divine favor and only manifest in those who are considered the most holy and touched by the Lord. The other nuns believe this about Marie and worship her accordingly. By lying and keeping Leopolda’s secret, Marie finally has power over the abusive nun.