Few novelists can fuse the comic and the tragic as beautifully as Louise Erdrich does, and she does it again in The Sentence.
Erdrich’s last novel, The Night Watchman, which won this year’s Pulitzer Prize for fiction, is based on historical events in the 1950s. Most of The Sentence takes place in 2020, its events still raw wounds.
As the main story of The Sentence begins, on All Souls Day of 2019, its narrator, Tookie, has a pretty good life in Minneapolis. A Chippewa in her 40s who describes herself as “an ugly woman” but “striking in a Hellgirl way,” Tookie appreciates that life, having spent a decade in prison for the crime of stealing a corpse, a story in equal parts macabre and hilarious that kicks off the book.
Tookie gains two gifts from that prison time, though. A former teacher, Jackie, who always saw a spark in the neglected, tough child, starts sending her books, and she becomes obsessed with reading. When she’s released, Jackie gets her a job in the bookstore she manages.
The other gift is the man who arrested her. Pollux, a towering Potawatomi man, was already a longtime friend when he gently handcuffed her in a diner. After her prison stint, she runs into him in an outdoor supply store — and he immediately proposes marriage.
Taking the bookstore job and accepting the proposal let Tookie turn her life around. She and Pollux are soul mates, their loving, laughter-filled marriage one of the great delights of this book. He’s left the police force to study and perform traditional Indigenous ceremonies, and that pursuit grounds both of them.
There is a fly in the ointment (and the exceedingly well-read Tookie will explain the origin of that phrase): Pollux’s niece, Hetta, whom they’ve adopted but don’t see much now that she’s grown. Hetta and Tookie don’t get along and haven’t spoken in months when the girl shows up one day with a newborn baby, Jarvis. Pollux and Tookie are floored but instantly in love.
Tookie’s job, which she also loves, is at Birchbark Books, a real-life independent bookstore that author Erdrich (who is a member of the Chippewa tribe) owns in Minneapolis. Although most of its employees in The Sentence are fictional, Erdrich does include herself as a minor character, sometimes looking the very picture of a literary author in her office lit by “scarves of mellow light,” at others kneeling to clean up a mess under a kitchen sink and cursing a blue streak.
Tookie’s problem at the bookstore is a customer who won’t leave — even though she’s dead.
In life, Flora was a passionate reader. “Our specialty is Native books, her main interest,” Tookie tells us. “But here comes the annoying part: she was a stalker — of all things Indigenous. Maybe stalker is too harsh a word. Let’s say instead that she was a very persistent wannabe. ... (Such a) person is proud of having identified with an underdog and wants some affirmation from an actual Indigenous person.”
Such wannabes are not uncommon among the store’s customers, but Flora took it pretty far, first claiming to have been an Indian in a former life, then showing around a photo of a “shadowy great-grandmother” who was supposedly Indigenous and even adopting an Indigenous daughter, Kateri.
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While Flora was alive, the staff just smiled and sold her books. But now she has died — in her bed, while reading a very strange book — and Tookie keeps hearing her in the store, the sounds of her silk jackets rustling and her beaded earrings tinkling. Sometimes Flora slams books off the shelves to the floor, often books that have her name in the title. And once in a while Tookie hears her voice.
Tookie is even more spooked when Kateri gives her the book her mother was reading when she died — and Tookie has a terrifying experience when she reads it.
A more terrifying experience suddenly overwhelms everything early in 2020. Erdrich captures the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in vivid, wrenching detail in the emotional turmoil her characters go through, the dislocation of knowing something is out there that can kill you and having no idea how to protect yourself and those you love.
For the people of Minneapolis, the pandemic is just the first punch. On May 25, Hetta shows her father something on her phone, “the video of a police officer with his knee on the neck of a Black man who cried out and cried out for his mother and then went quiet and then was silent.”
Pollux is staggered when he learns it happened at Cup Foods: “I was just there. Maybe I could of. ...” That impulse to help takes him out to serve food to protest marchers in the days ahead, some of them Hetta and the young people who work for Birchbark.
The store has had to close its doors because of the virus but is doing a booming mail-order business, especially after George Floyd’s murder: “Everyone who wasn’t out on the streets wanted to read about why everyone else was out on the streets.”
And Flora has not departed.
As Tookie makes her way through those overwhelming days, she falters sometimes, like one night keeping vigil in a hospital parking lot: “The hospital emitted ghosts. The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.”
No one escapes heartache in The Sentence, but mysteries old and new are solved, and some of the broken places made stronger. The Sentence, a book about the healing power of books, makes its own case splendidly.
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 400 pages, $28.99
Times Festival of Reading
Louise Erdrich will be in conversation with Times book editor Colette Bancroft at a live virtual event, followed by an audience Q&A, at 4 p.m. Nov. 14. Erdrich’s talk is the festival’s only ticketed event. Tickets are $50 and include a copy of The Sentence and admission to the interview. Proceeds benefit the festival and the Times Journalism Fund. Tickets are available at festivalofreading.com.