Book Review:  The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

This book is a fantasy that includes a ghost haunting a bookstore and a book that seems to bring death to those who read it. However, these elements are peripheral for much of the story, although they prove to be important as the main character achieves emotional resolution near the end. Despite its fantastical trappings, though, The Sentence is extremely relevant. At its heart are current events such as the COVID pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, and the riots that occurred in the aftermath of Floyd’s death.

The title of the book has multiple meanings. Its narrator, a Native American woman nicknamed Tookie, goes through a long prison sentence at the beginning of the book. A journal that she discovers has a sentence in it that seemed to have caused the death of Flora, the woman who haunts the bookshop. Additionally, Erdrich places a quote from Sun Yung Shin at the beginning of the book that says, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.”

After he arrests Tookie, the tribal policeman who arrested her, a man named Pollax, quits his job. When she is released after several years in prison, he asks her to marry him and she accepts. Their devotion to each other no matter what is happening in the world around them is one of the poignant highlights of the novel.

Tookie loves books and works at a small independent bookstore that has a large selection of Native American literature. These aspects of Tookie’s character reflect the author’s own background. Erdrich owns an independent bookstore called Birchbark Books in Minnesota, where the story is set. We all went through the physical and social changes brought about by COVID, but Erdrich also saw firsthand the aftermath of the tragedy of George Floyd’s murder, as it happened in Minneapolis, where she lives and her bookstore is situated.

A great strength of this novel is Tookie’s complex character and strong narrative voice. She is flawed, vulnerable, but deeply heroic in her own way. When her husband Pollax gets COVID and has to spend a long time in the hospital, she is unable to visit or even directly communicate with him. In frustration, she sleeps in her car in a parking lot next to the hospital even though the weather is sub-freezing, just so that she can be near him. She and her family want to get involved in the protests that occur in the wake of Floyd’s murder, but they have to reckon with not only often-violent police suppression, but also the rapidly spreading pandemic. While all this is going on, Flora’s haunting of the bookstore begins to affect Tookie more personally and traumatically.

Erdrich is a writer of elegant simplicity. Her word choices, the cadence of her sentences, and her style are always spot-on. The story never drags, even when it focuses on Tookie’s reactions to the weather, the landscape, or the feeling of holding and observing her stepdaughter’s baby. This is a wonderful novel: a fantasy that also focuses intensely on the reality of our times. Highly recommended.

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