In this stunning and timely novel, Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award-winning author Louise Erdrich creates a wickedly funny ghost story, a tale of passion, of a complex marriage, and of a woman's relentless errors. Louise Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence, asks what we owe to the living, the dead, to the reader and to the book. A small independent bookstore in Minneapolis is haunted from November 2019 to November 2020 by the store's most annoying customer. Flora dies on All Souls' Day, but she simply won't leave the store. Tookie, who has landed a job selling books after years of incarceration that she survived by reading "with murderous attention," must solve the mystery of this haunting while at the same time trying to understand all that occurs in Minneapolis during a year of grief, astonishment, isolation, and furious reckoning. The Sentence begins on All Souls' Day 2019 and ends on All Souls' Day 2020. Its mystery and proliferating ghost stories during this one year propel a narrative as rich, emotional, and profound as anything Louise Erdrich has written. … (more)
Initially, no one else thinks the store is haunted, but most of her coworkers do believe in spirits (not ghosts). Tookie's husband Pollux is a master of tribal rituals, but burning sage and other strategies have not laid Flora to rest. When she finds the mysterious book that she believes Flora has been searching for--the book she was reading when she died--, Tookie tries another tactic. But things become even more ominous when she actually hears Flora's voice pleading, "Let me in!"
I don't want to reveal more about the plot, but there are a number of twists and turns, and the characters are wonderful. Besides Flora, two other customers that figure into the story, an elderly black mand that Tookie has nicknamed Dissatisfaction (you can probably guess why) and a strange young man who gives her a book he has written, he says, in "the language of my heritage." There are no printed words in the book, just "chicken scratches." We later learn that his name is Laurent, and he figures more prominently in the story than one might at first suspect. Tookie's co-workers, Penstemon, Ameris, Gruen, and Jackie, her husband Pollux and her stepdaughter Hetta are all unique characters in their own way. Erdrich adds contemporary depth to the novel in the second half, in which two major events affect both the characters and the setting: the murder of George Floyd and the spread of COVID-19. It's impossible not to relive those events through the responses and fears of her Minneapolis Native Americans.
The Sentence] is a story of may ghosts, not just Flora's. She is haunted by her relationship with her dead mother, by her absent father, by several destructive love affairs, by the actions that put her into jail. Even though she feels that she was "saved" by books and by the love of Pollux, these ghosts will not rest. And of course, the history of her people haunts not only Tookie but every Native American character in the book.
I really enjoyed this book and will undoubtedly go back to read more by Erdrich that I missed over the last 20 years or so.
It starts with
Highly recommended and I will be reading more by this author.
This is the first book I have read that talks about the pandemic for more than a name-check and I hope that others can depict the onset and early period of uncertainty as well.
I received a Netgalley copy of this book, but this review is my honest opinion.
Bonus: this book includes, as an integral part of the story, some lists of books to read, and an admonition to buy them from an independent bookshop.
The idea of the sentence … both as a collection of words conveying a specific image or idea, and a term of servitude
Now, this alone could-have-been/would-have-been an adequate framework for pretty much any kind of novel about a person trying to exist in the interstices where two cultures rub together, often uncomfortably. But Erdrich then brings in Tookie's husband’s troubled pregnant niece, who is also carrying her own emotional ghosts, and then tosses everyone into the pressure cooker that was the first year of Covid, with its isolation, uncertainty, and fear. Even this isn’t quite enough, because if you remember your recent history, there was a little incident in Minneapolis in May of 2020, in which a Black man was killed by city police officers during an arrest for allegedly passing a counterfeit $20 bill.
Yeah. That one. The George Floyd murder and the civil unrest it engendered, takes center stage for a good portion of the latter half of the book, and is reflected through the Native community, which has its own issues with White law enforcement and legal practices.
It’s easy to see this novel is a wild stew of ideas, social conflicts, cultural differences, personal crises, family drama, and eyewitness to contemporary history. The plot staggers and wanders and occasionally stalls, but it also keeps pulling the reader through, via some incredibly unlikely sleight-of-hand that Erdrich has wrought, because dammit, you want to know what’s going to happen and how Tookie and her family (both biological and chosen) are going to come through this.
The reader comes out the other end, as though emerging from the Confessional booth in one corner of the bookstore, which also plays a major role, not entirely sure how one got there or exactly what has just occurred, but knowing that something did, and that it was utterly life-altering.
This is not a quick read, and it may be a book that requires a second go-round to winkle out the connections and inferences not seen on the first trip. Erdrich’s fans will probably buckle down to the task; readers coming to her work for the first time may end up walking away in puzzlement.
Tookie works at Birchbark Books, Erdrich's own bookstore in Minneapolis. She served her time and since being in prison married the man who arrested her and has settled in to be a wife and an employee at a store that serves as a community hub and a place that emphasizes Native American literature and crafts. As the pandemic shuts things down, Tookie is being haunted by a woman who had been inventing a Native American heritage for herself.
Mainly, this novel succeeds because Tookie is such a wonderful character. And Erdrich writes about all the characters with such compassion, even the borderline Rachel Dolezal character. There's a wide variety of life experiences in this novel, and Erdrich leans into the compassionate interpretation of people's motivations. This is especially noteworthy given that the novel is not only set during the pandemic, but continues through the demonstrations in Minneapolis in the wake of George Floyd's murder. It's a ripped-from-the-headlines novel that doesn't feel exploitative, because at heart, this is a novel about one defensive, loving, opinionated woman living her life and doing her best to love and care for her family, whether at home or in the bookstore.
The novel’s central character, Tookie, is a young Indian woman who is conned into doing something stupid for a supposed friend of hers that ends up changing the rest of her life. She agrees to steal a dead body and carry it over to another state (crossing state lines is the truly fatal mistake here) to a different friend. Tookie is uneasy about the whole idea, but she really does not believe that she is doing anything particularly evil, or even seriously illegal. What she does not know, however, is that her friend has hidden drugs on the dead body that she’s persuaded Tookie to move for her. And after the whole fiasco falls apart and she is arrested, only Tookie will spend the next few years in prison.
Tookie’s years in prison, though, end up setting her on the more positive course that she will follow for the rest of her life because, in order to maintain her sanity while incarcerated, she learns to read there “with murderous attention.” She reads everything she can get her hands on, is intimidated by nothing, and turns herself into the kind of literary expert that bookstore owners dream about. Now having been released from prison early, Tookie is happily married to the same cop who arrested her all those years ago and is, in fact, working in a Minneapolis bookstore owned by the fictional version of Louise Erdrich herself.
But then, on All Souls’ Day in 2019 (when the novel actually begins), it happens.
Tookie realizes that she and the bookstore are being haunted by a woman every store employee agrees has to have been their single most irritating customer ever. In life, the ghost woman wanted nothing more than to be acknowledged by bookstore employees as one of them: an indigenous woman. Flora worked hard to prove her case, and she used their indie bookstore for much of her research material. And now she refuses to leave the store, even in death. It will take Tookie a whole year to figure out why Flora seems to be stuck in the bookstore and how to free her spirit, and what a year it will be: the outbreak of COVID-19, the public murder of George Floyd by a rogue Minneapolis cop, and a surprise grandchild’s birth, included. It’s a rough year for Tookie and her friends, including bookstore owner Louise, but they make it through with lots of bumps and bruises to show for their efforts.
Bottom Line: The Sentence covers a lot of territory: what makes a family, the effects of sudden isolation, deep grief, the symbiotic relationship between booksellers and readers, race relations, wannabe Indians, and the long term impact of attempted genocide. Some of what you read will put a tear in your eye, some of it will make you laugh, and some of it may even make you roll your eyes a little. The one thing The Sentence will not do is bore you.
Flora is a wannabe Native American, and Tookie found her very annoying when she shopped at the bookstore. Aptly, she dies on All Souls Day. Erdrich uses this Christian remembrance to emphasize the veil at the end of October and the beginning of November when days shorten, and the worlds of the living and the dead become similar. This period brings celebrations and customs; Native American and Christian imagery provide a motif for developing the story.
Many characters affect Tookie's journey through life post-incarceration. Pollux, the tribal police officer, arrested Tookie and then became her husband. He is constant support for Tookie as she struggles with being haunted by Flora and the different decisions in her life, some of which she regrets. Hetta, Pollux's niece, who is like a daughter to him, joins Tookie and Pollux's household with Jarvis, her newborn baby. Unbeknownst to all, she would be locked down with them as the 2020 pandemic began. Hetta is an activist, and her political views are particularly interesting because of the story's geographic location. Other characters such as the baby's father and Tookie's colleagues at the bookstore all play pivotal roles in understanding the complexity of Tookie, Native American issues, and the multilayered political issues during the pandemic.
My second bookstore novel in a row! Buy coincidence! Also, a cool coincidence to be reading this one week before ‘Thankstaking’!
Five days after Flora died, she was still coming to the book store. This is the
Erdrich really captures the feeling of life at the beginning of the Covid pandemic - the fear, the unknown, the panicked hoarding. This sentence, “The new rules for being alive kept changing.”, perfectly described how I felt, and still feel. She also ties in the murder of George Floyd, which takes place near to where the characters in this book live. This book made me re-feel everything that I felt then, and still feel. Reading it brought me such joy. Finishing it, such sorrow.
“The door is open. Go!”
Loved that she included a list of books, of which I have read little. May use that list for a personal challenge in the soon to be New Year.
Quotes: “In prison I had learned to read with a force that resembled insanity.”
“The shopping frenzy was like the beginning of every show where the streets empty and some grotesque majestic entity emerges from the mist or fire.”
“What we’re living through is either unreal or too real, I can’t decide.”
“I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered.”
Louise Erdrich has written maybe THE novel of the moment. "The Sentence" not only integrates several current events such as the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement and America's fragile state before the 2020 election, or questions of identity, but also mythological aspects, old stories told over generations and over continents, stories which have been around as long a mankind itself. It is also the account of one woman, a woman who made mistakes, who has not always been fair since she is strong-minded, but a woman who has the heart on the right side.
It is not easy to determine where to put the focus on when talking about the novel. It seems to be eclectic, yet, this is just like life itself. It feels overwhelming at times with all the things happening at the same time, conflicting narratives which make it hard to make sense of all around you.
What I liked best was how the pandemic was integrated into the story. The author well incorporated everyday questions - why are people bulk buying? how dangerous will the virus be? what will happen to the bookstore? - into the plot, not giving it too much room but authentically showing how it affected life. This is also where we see Tookie's good heart when she worries about her customers and tries to find ways of providing them with further reading material.
The side line of the ghost was first a kind of gothic element but it ultimately triggers the question of identity. Tookie belongs to the indigenous population, which is simply a fact, yet, one that has a huge impact on the way her life went. With it comes the big question of racial appropriation which seems so easy to answer but actually isn't always.
The protagonist craves normal in a time when nothing is normal. It is a year of a chain of nightmares that finally closes. “The Sentence” is also a book about how literature can provide an escape and possibly also answers when reality does not anymore.
Towards the end of a year, an absolute literary gem with a wonderful annexe.
Erdrich is grappling with a hellish few years and doing it in ways that I love and wholeheartedly endorse. She is doing this first with literature.
As mentioned, Erdrich is grappling with painful and difficult things (Trump, Covid, the erasure of indigenous people and appropriation of indigenous culture) but this is still a book filled with hope and love and humor. The relationship between Tookie and her husband is just so lovely and funny and sweet. Tookie's relationship with a child who comes into the story (I won't say how) is filled with wonder and love. Tookie's relationships with her co-workers are significant, interesting and nuanced. For the most part the people in this book treat one another with true kindness, and that alone is a bright spot in a world where kindness seems almost quaint.
An ongoing theme is that we (this is the individual and the collective American we) need to deal with our literal and metaphorical ghosts, in order to thrive and survive. Our regular way of doing things is to ignore and silence ghosts, to drown out their voices in any way we can. It doesn't work. It saps our energy and our decency and our joy; it paralyzes us. The only way to get rid of ghosts to appease them by acknowledging them and opening ourselves up to learning what they are trying to teach us. It is a good message. There are so many examples of this in the book, but one is that Tookie loves her husband absolutely, and he is a good man, but he is also the man who put zip ties around her wrists and sent her to jail after she did something stupid (he was a cop.) Her forgiveness of him parallels a larger need for America to heal after hundreds years of white people suppressing indigenous and black people, and after George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, etc. We need to address history, work through it, and create a new way that acknowledges, but doesn't live, in the past. When Tookie tries not to think about Pollux arresting her, to just move on, it festers. It needs to be remembered in order for anyone to move forward in a productive way. At the end of the book Tookie says "I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid I won’t remember this year.” That seems as close as I can come to summing up the book.
Here is the easier part - the (relatively minor) issues I had with this read. The book starts with a caper that turns out to be somewhat disastrous. There is a reckoning of sorts with the event that happens near the end of the book, but the initial caper is not mentioned at all in-between. When Tookie begins to grapple with the ghosts nearly 200 pages after the initial event I had to go back and remind myself who these people were that she was suddenly talking about, It made for choppiness. I also hated the whole Laurent storyline. If I was supposed to get a message that language has the meaning we ascribe to it, and if a crazy person creates a language and assigns meaning to it then it is real, then mission accomplished. I got that message. But if that is true, then it gives support to the concept of alternate facts. If one person can decide a word means something, that the word "kyta" means cauliflower for instance, then why can't one person decide that the sky is fuchsia? Erdrich is usually logical, but I don't think she is here. If the message was crazy people can be good partners too, I guess I got that too. I am not sure why either of those things needed to be addressed. The whole storyline made everyone look a bit ridiculous.
A final note, Erdrich's writing is in top form here. Other than the one bit of choppiness I mentioned the storyline is rich and well paced, and at a sentence level it is just plain pithy.
I am a little sad this is not a book club read because it is a book I would very much like to talk about.
The book is about books and words, some common, some unique, and some completely unknown to most readers; it is about words that make up the sentences that send us messages, whispered, written or shouted into the void. It is about the influence of
Every progressive issue will be mentioned in this book since the author uses is as a platform to express her philosophy clearly. It is done well and will be enjoyed greatly by those who are on her side, especially. Others, however, might be alienated and take offense. In the author’s effort to not only stress, but to make her politics and philosophy known, the book sometimes feels a bit like propaganda for the Progressives. She highlights issues of racism, police brutality, unhealthy diet and lifestyles, crime, climate change, prison reform, an unfair and subjective justice system, a lack of respect for the environment, and countless other left-wing issues in all of her little reminiscences, legends and myths from her ancestors, family, friends and fellow workers, but she offers no real solutions for the problems.
Using the current events of the day, like the death of George Floyd, the riots in Minneapolis that followed, the defund the police movement, and the rise of BLM, coupled with the current, continuing pandemic crisis, she trashes the "right" side of politics and President Trump, never once giving him any credit for any of his accomplishments, notably a vaccine, the fastest developed in history, for a disease that was and is still killing thousands. Her views are biased and she is speaking to only half of the country, and possibly turning off the other half, regardless of how meritorious her novel may actually be.
The main character, Tookie, is an ex-convict. She was convicted of stealing a dead body to soothe her friend Danae, who was having a moment of deep and uncontrollable grief. Of course, the $25,000 payment she was offered influenced her already flawed judgment. Unknown to her, the friend turned out to be an enemy, taking advantage of her extreme immaturity and naivete. Her friend Danae and her accomplice Mara, had made Tookie a mule. Drugs were hidden on the body she transported across state lines, compounding her crime. Although they set her up, she was sentenced to a term of six decades, while her friends received far lighter sentences. Released after ten years because of the efforts of the cop she married, Pollux, she begins to live again, although with a lot of emotional and psychological baggage. Plagued by her own guilt, loneliness and haunted by ghosts, real and imagined, she proceeds to work out her future life.
Using Pollux, the author further expresses her politics as we learn that he wonders if he should kneel along with the rioting protesters who want to ensure that Derek Chauvin is convicted for the murder of Floyd. His first wife died of a drug overdose. His daughter, Hetta, from that marriage, has recently borne a child, Jarvis, out of wedlock. Laurent is the father. He is the very same Laurent, who disappears and resurfaces to have a relationship with Tookie’s bookstore workmate, Asema. When Asema and Hetta become friends, it further stretches credulity. Laurent is afraid that he is carrying a terrible, inherited trait that will be passed on to their child. It is called Rugaroo. Those with it refuse to die. They repeatedly return back to life. He believes that his problems have been watered down through the years, with far less serious consequences. He merely suffers from cravings, he believes. He admits that he was afraid Hetta would reject him, so he ran. They all, except for Tookie, participate in the protests that often became very violent. Somehow, the real and unreal parts of the narrative do merge into an interesting, if not very plausible, tale.
Because the author used the book almost as propaganda to trash former President Trump, I was very disappointed. I have had just about enough of Trump Derangement Syndrome, especially with the way the current White house is conducting our affairs. It is time for a reality check for her and many readers. On the positive side, I learned that blue, like red, wards off the evil eye. I also learned that although I lived in Minnesota, just 12 miles from Minneapolis, I was never aware of racial problems while I resided there.
In addition, this author should not have read her own book. She was too close to the story, over emoted, and spoke with a throaty, bordering on sexy, voice which more often than not, made me sleepy.
But the timing of the book also hit me. It starts in the Fall of 2019 and barrels right into the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I could identify with this: "The reports kept saying that those who died had underlying health issues. That was probably supposed to reassure some people—the super-healthy, the vibrant, the young. A pandemic is supposed to blow through distinctions and level all before it. This one did the opposite. Some of us instantly became more mortal."
This one is set in Minneapolis, mostly in a bookstore owned by the author who actually shows up a time or two. Very meta! The story also covers the time during the murder of George Floyd. I learned a bit about how fragile the relationship is between Native Americans and the police. "You rarely hear about police killings of Indigenous people, though the numbers are right up there with Black people, because so often it happens on remote reservations, and the police don’t wear cameras."
If you are squeamish at all about any of these things then this book is not for you, but I was entranced, and I will be reading more of her work.
The bookstore where Tookie works and where the ghost of Flora shuffles through aisles and knocks books off of shelves is Birchbark Books, which is also the real independent bookstore that Louise Erdrich owns in Minneapolis. Erdrich even shows up as a character in the book -- mostly distractedly writing from the back room of the store. And books just saturate the novel. Tookie recommends books to customers, talks about books that got her through her prison sentence, and even leaves the reader with multiple lists of recommended books at the end of the novel (including a "Ghost Managing Book List," "Short Perfect Novels," "Indigenous Lives," and "Tookie's Pandemic Reading."
This is a book that is filled with humor and love, but that doesn't shy away from the hard parts of relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and even irritating customers. Nothing is simple here, just like nothing is simple in our own pandemic lives. Reading back through the early days of the pandemic and the anguish after the murder of George Floyd was difficult and powerful, and Erdrich has written a novel that is extremely contemporary, but feels like it will age well with time and not be set aside as just another pandemic novel. Highly recommended.
Though Flora's body was cremated, finally after some mistaken ashes, she continues to show up at the bookstore, making the same rustling noises that Tookie knew was her presence. Meanwhile the narrative includes the real life current events of the George Floyd killing, subsequent riots and BLK movement, followed by the impact of the corona virus. It's a good story and Tookie is immediately a classic Erdrich character. Her and Pollux's love for each other is nicely outlined and memorable.
Some lines from the Sentence
I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of blinding instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they can’t afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.
Pollux had once been a keen-eyed boxer. His nose was mashed, left eyebrow dented. He had a false tooth. His knuckles were uneven knobs.
Ted Johnson was the most nondescript person ever, sad-sack in baggy Men’s Wearhouse suits, floppy 1980s ties, a half-bald pate sprouting hair just at the ear line, a curly swatch he kept tucking back. He had a round bland face with perfectly opaque green eyes and pinhole pupils cold as drill bits. Unfortunately he was not covering up a preternatural shrewdness.
Nothing makes Penstemon happier than handing a favorite book to someone who wants to read it. I’m the same. I suppose you could say this delights us although ‘delight’ is a word I rarely use. Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.
In the whispery dark, I wondered about Asema’s people, the Dakota on her father’s side. They had fled from here in 1862, when the state of Minnesota offered volunteer scouts twenty-five-dollar bounties for Indian scalps.
Like every state in our country, Minnesota began with blood dispossession and enslavement.
Thankgiving, I mean thankstaking, week remained warm.
However, I was driven to imagine that this book contained a sentence that changed according to the reader’s ability to decipher it and could somehow kill.
‘All that is from the earth, right? We’ve drawn life from below for too long,’ he said. ‘You’re going to start talking about fossil fuels any minute.’ ‘Sucking out oil and digging up minerals.’ ‘Here we go.’ ‘Things will improve when we start living on the top of the earth, on wind and light.’
All over the world—in Greek villages, in the American Southwest, among the Tuareg—blueness repels evil. Blue glass bottles on windowsills keep devils out, and so on. Thus the front door, painted spirit blue, and the vibrant blue canopies above the windows.
What I’m trying to say is that a certain sentence of the book—a written sentence, a very powerful sentence—killed Flora.’ Louise was silent. After a few moments she spoke. ‘I wish I could write a sentence like that.’
When a baby falls asleep in your arms you are absolved. The purest creature alive has chosen you. There’s nothing else.
This book brought me back to the old days. I grew up in Rondo and that was a warm neighborhood, full of kindness, pie, elderly folks, kids, craziness, and sorrow.
I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.
We may be a striver city of blue progressives in a sea of red, but we are also a city of historically sequestered neighborhoods and old hatreds that die hard or leave a residue that is invisible to the well and wealthy, but chokingly present to the ill and the exploited. Nothing good would come of it, or so I thought.
Pollux’s grandma had once told him dogs are so close with people that sometimes, when death shows up, the dog will step in and take the hit. Meaning, the dog would go off with death, taking their person’s place. I was pretty sure that Gary had done this for go off with death, taking their person’s place. I was pretty sure that Gary had done this for Roland and then visited the store to let me know.
Who but an NDN would know that some days truth is a ghost who shouts in the voice of no one in particular and other days it is a secret nostalgia poured into the coffee cups of the living?
Jarvis awakened. We regarded each other in the calm light. He was on the verge of his first steps. Walking is a feat of controlled falling. Like life, I guess.
While not a fan of ghost stories, this seems to work. The other workers in the store are each unique and eventually one of them seems to sense Flora as well. Then there is Covid - the first book I've read with that as a part and then the George Floyd killing and the riots that follow.
Overall a good read, interesting characters. And the background of Flora is not what was expected.