The Sentence

by Louise Erdrich

Hardcover, 2021

Call number




Harper (2021), 400 pages


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.

Media reviews

The Sentence covers a lot of ground, from ghosts to the joys and trials of bookselling to the lives of Native Americans and inmates doing hard time. And that’s just the first half of the story, before the pandemic, before George Floyd. The novel gets a little baggy after a while, as Erdrich
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struggles to juggle multiple plotlines. But the virtues here so outweigh the flaws that to complain seems almost like ingratitude ... The Sentence is rife with passages that stop you cold, particularly when Erdrich...articulates those stray, blindsiding moments that made 2020 not only tragic but also so downright weird and unsettling ... There is something wonderfully comforting in the precise recollection of such furtive memories, like someone quietly opening a door onto a little slice of clarity ... The Sentence testifies repeatedly to the power books possess to heal us and, yes, to change our lives ... There are books, like this one, that while they may not resolve the mysteries of the human heart, go a long way toward shedding light on our predicaments. In the case of The Sentence, that’s plenty.
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8 more
The coronavirus pandemic is still raging away and God knows we’ll be reading novels about it for years, but Louise Erdrich’s The Sentence may be the best one we ever get. Neither a grim rehashing of the lockdown nor an apocalyptic exaggeration of the virus, her book offers the kind of fresh
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reflection only time can facilitate, and yet it’s so current the ink feels wet ... Such is the mystery of Erdrich’s work, and The Sentence is among her most magical novels, switching tones with the felicity of a mockingbird ... The great arc of [the] first 30 pages — zany body-snatching! harrowing prison ordeal! opposites-attract rom-com! — could have provided all the material needed for a whole novel, but Erdrich has something else in mind for The Sentence: This is a ghost story — though not like any I’ve read before. The novel’s ectoplasm hovers between the realms of historical horror and cultural comedy ... Moving at its own peculiar rhythm with a scope that feels somehow both cloistered and expansive, The Sentence captures a traumatic year in the history of a nation struggling to appreciate its own diversity.
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The Sentence: It's such an unassuming title (and one that sounds like it belongs to a writing manual); but, Louise Erdrich's latest is a deceptively big novel, various in its storytelling styles; ambitious in its immediacy... All is tumultuous in The Sentence — the spirits, the country, Erdrich's
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own style. One of the few constants this novel affirms is the power of books. Tookie recalls that everyone at Birchbark is delighted when bookstores are deemed an "essential" business during the pandemic, making books as important as "food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze." No arguments here. And I'd add The Sentence to the growing list of fiction that seems pretty "essential" for a deeper take on the times we're living through.
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Clearly having been written in the midst of the events that overtake its characters—the coronavirus and then the Twin Cities' eruption over the murder of George Floyd—the book has a sometimes disconcerting you-are-there quality, which can seem out of step with the story proper, though the
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events do amplify the novel's themes of social and personal connection and dissociation, and of the historic crimes and contemporary aggressions, micro and overt, perpetrated in the name of white supremacy. What does hold everything together here, fittingly enough in a novel so much of which takes place in a bookstore, is the connection made through reading; and one of the great charms of The Sentence for an avid reader is the running commentary on books—recommendations, judgments, citations, even, at the end, a Totally Biased List of Tookie's favorites.
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Few novelists can fuse the comic and the tragic as beautifully as Louise Erdrich does, and she does it again in The Sentence ... 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
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of books, makes its own case splendidly.
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It is a ghost story, a love letter to the written word, an exploration of Indigenous identity, an urgent response to a volatile and cataclysmic world. At once brutally realistic and weirdly metafictional, it burns with moral passion, brims with humor, and captivates with its striking and
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irresistible voice ... People’s capacity for change, their ability to transcend the limits of the sentences they receive, to exceed the sentences used to sum them up, to use the sentences they read and speak as portals onto a larger life and an avenue towards freedom, is one of Erdrich’s most moving ethical points here ... The Sentence, is a wonder, and Erdrich a writer of wonders.
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Erdrich is the rare writer who can straddle the line between the real world and the spiritual seemingly effortlessly ... a love letter to the written word, to books, and to those who sell them. It’s also a chronicle of a tumultuous year. It’s a ghost story. It’s the story of how racism haunts
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America. It is all these things wrapped in a novel that is cluttered in the way a great bookstore is cluttered with treasures and little gems hidden behind every page.
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A scintillating story about a motley group of Native American booksellers haunted by the spirit of a customer ... More than a gripping ghost story, this offers profound insights into the effects of the global pandemic and the collateral damage of systemic racism. It adds up to one of Erdrich’s
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most sprawling and illuminating works to date.
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Erdrich turns her eye to various kinds of hauntings, all of which feel quite real to the affected characters ... The novel’s humor is mordant ... Erdrich’s love for bookselling is clear, as is her complicated affection for Minneapolis and the people who fight to overcome institutional hatred
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and racism. A novel that reckons with ghosts—of both specific people and also the shadows resulting from America’s violent, dark habits.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member CarltonC
This wonderful book includes a bookshop, indigenous Americans, a death, a haunting, a baneful book, the coronavirus pandemic, the George Floyd murder and subsequent demonstrations. So much story, and for me unusual content, but I felt relaxed being enchanted by a master storyteller.
It starts with
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Tookie’s crime, followed by ten years imprisonment, which are briefly passed over because they are not the story, and whose waste might be redeemed by Tookie’s engagement with books. The story is what happens next, the whole thing, books and people, everything interconnected.
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.
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LibraryThing member Cariola
It has been years since I've read anything by Louise Erdrich, and I'm happy to say that this was a much better experience than reading Chris Bohjalian's latest after a long gap. Tookie Pollux is a Native American woman with a history of drug abuse and nonviolent crimes and is married to the cop who
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arrested her when she ended up in jail. She's out on parole and working at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. One of her least favorite customers, Flora, a white woman claiming that she is Native American, suddenly dies, but Tookie is convinced that her ghost is still hanging around, trying to find the book that will prove her heritage. (Birchbark is a regular bookstore but also specializes in Native American books; one of Tookie's co-workers is a graduate student doing research in native American studies.) Every morning when she comes to work, rookie finds books pulled from the shelves and thrown to the floor and paper towels scattered about in the washroom, and she can hear the familiar swishing of Flora's clothes as she passes by.

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.
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LibraryThing member Eyejaybee
I first became aware of Louise Erdrich just over thirty years ago when I read the Crown of Columbus, which she co-wrote with her long-time partner, Michael Dorris. I must admit that, in my then customary cloud of unknowing, I had not appreciated back then that she is an Indigenous American [I hope
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that is the appropriate terminology, and apologise if it is not the correct title to use.] That book was the subject of a lot of media attention because it received a massive advance from the publisher, and was commissioned to celebrate the five hundredth anniversary of the first voyage of Christopher Columbus. As far as I recall, it involved a hunt for documents or artefacts connected with that voyage, although any closer grasp of the details now escapes me. I had also been aware of the rather tragic story of Erdrich and Dorris themselves, which is too complex, and indeed upsetting, to delve into here.

Suffice to say that I did not know what to expect from this book, although I was intrigued to see that it had been shortlisted for the Women’s Fiction prize, and had received glowing reviews.

The book focuses on Tookie, an Ojibwe woman, whom we first encounter as she tells how she had come to be imprisoned, with a seemingly extortionate sentence of twenty seven years imposed on her. She is, we soon learn, a sensitive character, and one who had been largely redeemed by the generosity of spirit of her husband (formerly the policeman who had arrested her on more than one occasion) and a former teacher who sent her books, and who, on her release, gave her employment in an independent bookstore in Minneapolis. Tookie repays this faith in her through diligence and untrammelled affection.

The main thrust of the story follows events in the bookstore following the sudden, and slightly mysterious, death of a regular customer, who subsequently seems to be haunting the shop. At first it is just Tookie who seems to be aware of the ghostly manifestations, but gradually her colleagues become aware of them. Meanwhile, life outside is equally troubling. The book is set principally in 2020, so first Covid, and then the outrage following the death of George Floyd, come heavily into play, adding a highly complex context for the unwinding of the story.

Being woefully ignorant of the history of Indigenous Americans, and the nature and extent of the burden of injustices to which they have been subjected, I found the subject matter challenging yet also engrossing. Tookie, her husband, and her colleagues all seemed wonderfully drawn to my, and I found them wholly plausible. I don’t know how representative this is of Louise Erdrich’s wider canon, but I will definitely be looking to read more by her.
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LibraryThing member Hccpsk
How can you not love a book about books and bookstores where the author inserts herself as a minor character and refers to our former President as “orangey”? Louise Erdrich does just that with The Sentence, which revolves around Tookie, formerly wild and incarcerated, but now one of the cast of
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interesting figures who work in Erdrich’s Minnesota bookstore, Birchbark. The loose plot involves the ghost of a customer who will not leave the store during the tumultuous year of pandemic and BLM protests, but The Sentence is really a study of self, community, forgiveness, and healing where Erdrich lets her dry sense of humor shine. This pandemic ghost story runs the gamut from strange and beautiful to painfully heartfelt, with Erdrich’s powerful writing framing 2020 as only she could. A must-read.
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LibraryThing member Stahl-Ricco
“Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.”
- Tookie

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
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skeletal plot point of an amazing book! I was captivated, moved, and shaken while reading this. Everything felt raw and real. I loved the characters, and I loved how the words flow in and around them! And I loved, loved, loved the bookstore! So much so, that I feel strongly about visiting it and basking in its warmth. Soon, I hope.

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!”
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LibraryThing member hemlokgang
Reading this novel I felt for the first time that I genuinely began to grasp the vast gap between white American thinking and native people's thinking. Erdrich, Ojibwa herself, is able to articulate the experience of ways of perceiving, thinking, and believing which vary deeply from that passed
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down in my white culture. It includes, but is not limited to, anger at past treatment. The plot, about one woman's experience in prison, followed by work in a bookstore, a haunting by a deceased annoying customer, and a family struggling to get by emotionally. As seems to be the case in most of Erdrich's novels, the reader is encouraged to examine simple humanity, spirituality, family, and the nature of love. An excellent read!
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LibraryThing member brangwinn
This story set in Minneapolis is one of my favorite Louse Erdrich tales. If you pick up this book assuming you’ll find a writing manual, you’re in for a big surprise. Centering around Tookie, who in trying to help a good friend, hauls a dead body across state lines in a refrigerated food truck.
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Turns out the body has packets of cocaine taped under the corpse’s armpits. Tookie is arrested by a Native American policeman and is incarcerated for several years. She got her life together and moved to Minneapolis where she got a job in Erdrich’s bookshop, Birchbark Books. The storyline is wonderful, looking at current events from a Native American point of view as the characters deal with the pandemic and the death of George Floyd and its aftermath. Tookie marries Pollux, the policeman who arrested her. He along with Tookie, their foster daughter, and the employees at the bookstore give us a look at current events which hasn’t been well portrayed by the media. I’d add this book to a list people should read to understand current events. There’s a line in the book where Pollux, who had left the police force, tells about his grandmother who upon seeing her proud grandson in uniform, tells him not to let the uniform wear him. He wears the uniform. Pollux provides a figure who not only sees the Native American point of view but also sympathizes with law enforcement. Louise Erdrich appears as a minor character in the book, but because Birchbark Books is so close to where Derek Chauvin murdered Floyd, it provides a setting for helping readers see what was happening. If you belong to a book club in which the members enjoy seeing things from a different perspective, there will be fodder for much discussion.
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LibraryThing member SamSattler
Even though I’ve been reading Louise Erdrich novels since sometime in the mid-eighties, her latest novel, The Sentence, managed to surprise me in a number of ways. I did experience The Sentence as an audiobook rather than via its printed version, and I’m sure that’s a big part of this one
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seeming so different from the other Erdrich novels I’ve read. (Who knew — certainly, not me — that Louise Erdrich is such a talented audiobook narrator?) But there’s more to it than that. The Sentence just strikes me as being more personally revealing a novel than anything of Erdrich’s I’ve read in the past.

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.
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LibraryThing member LindaLoretz
The Sentence is another masterpiece by Louise Erdrich. There are so many plot points and themes that I am not sure I detected all of them. The title, The Sentence, has significance on so many levels: not only does it refer to the 60-year sentence that the main character, Tookie, received for
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transporting a dead body and drugs over state lines, but also to the sentence her people, the Ojibwe, have been living with since Europeans arrived on the land they inhabited. The title also encompasses sentences in books since Tookie became an avid reader while in prison for ten years of her sentence. Throughout the novel, we learn of revered sentences from Tookie's favorite literary works. There is also a sentence in a book that seemingly killed Flora, a character who dies early in the story and continually haunts Tookie in the bookstore where she worked in Minnesota in 2020. The bookstore is close to George Floyd's murder site, and this novel addresses life in Minnesota during the pandemic in the aftermath of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter marches. The Native American community sympathizes with BLM since law enforcement officials allegedly kill many Natives.

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.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
What a book! Erdrich never disappoints but with this novel - I couldn't imagine one more relevant to the times we are living in and the time before.
LibraryThing member Beamis12
Not many authors could include all the things Erdrich does in this novel and make it work. A haunting, a bookstore, Covid, motherhood, George Floyd's death and the ensueing protests, marriage, quarantine, and more. Set in Minnesota she also keeps to her Objibwe roots with native lore and
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injustices. Sounds like a word salad, but it does come to a cohesive whole. Somehow, but that is the brilliance and wonder of Erdrich. Serious subjects but humor as well. Plus, talk of books,books, books. One of my top five books of this year.

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.
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LibraryThing member LyndaInOregon
Erdrich is attempting to touch a lot of bases in her latest novel, and though each track is compelling in its own right, they may never make a comprehensive whole for many readers.

The idea of the sentence … both as a collection of words conveying a specific image or idea, and a term of servitude
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undertaken as punishment or penance weaves itself throughout the narrative, which is relayed by the urban Indian woman Tookie, whose checkered past has fetched her up in a small independent bookstore in Minneapolis which specializes in Native American works. The owner (an only semi-disguised Erdrich, who in fact owns just such a store), the other employees, and the regular customers make up Tookie’s world, along with her husband Pollux. One of the customers, a White woman the Native employees somewhat dismissively refer to as a “wannabe” Indian, has the temerity to die unexpectedly, but to continues to hang around the store in spirit. For a fair amount of the book, it looks like it’s going to be a contemporary ghost story. Flora – the ghost – had obtained (perhaps illicitly) a rare journal set down by a Native woman, survivor of the Dakota War, who refers to herself as being “sentenced to be white” in order to survive. Tookie’s relationship with this book, and with the spectral Flora, forms one main thread of the novel and leads to a discovery about her own history.

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.
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LibraryThing member RidgewayGirl
Set in a bookstore haunted by the ghost of a faithful customer, this book is set up to tick all the boxes. But it's also set during the pandemic, which is not something I'm eager to read about, yet or maybe ever, thank you. But the author is Louise Erdrich, so I bought a copy the week it was
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published. She has never steered me wrong. Spoiler alert: I liked this book a lot (although I didn't love it).

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.
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LibraryThing member kimkimkim
Ghost story? Political commentary? A touch of the pandemic? Written with gorgeous; provocative language, enormous descriptions and a dizzyingly array of thoughts and talking points.
LibraryThing member Perednia
A beautiful story of love, ghosts, the ties of the present to the past, the power of books and words, and the ways in which people and peoples hurt each other.
LibraryThing member froxgirl
This is a dense, multi-layered tour de force, as is Tookie, the narrator and haunted protagonist. She's a convicted felon, for body-snatching, and is now happily married to Pollux, the tribal policeman who arrested her. She works at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, a real business owned by Louise
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Erdrich, the real author. Meta, I know, but it all works beautifully. Tookie is undone by the return of stepdaughter Hetta and her newborn son Jarvis, and by her haunting by a deceased bookstore customer, Flora. All is well as the novel begins in 2019, until Flora dies, George Floyd is murdered, and the pandemic takes hold. The characters, mostly of various tribal origins, range from demanding customers to the young booksellers to the women who set Tookie up and sent her to prison for ten years. I felt like there was nothing missing here and everything had a reason, even the haunting of Tookie, and I am not a believer in spirits or ghosts. Quirky elements such as cowbirds (books written by unpublished authors and slipped into the store shelves), rugaroos (werewolves), and the Haskell Indian Nations University (a Historically Indigenous university which began as a government boarding school) all provide additional enrichment to the story. This is a remarkable novel which will stay with me forever, my first covid book, and it's hard to imagine a better one.

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.”
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LibraryThing member murderbydeath
What an extraordinary read. From first page to last I was awed and riveted. There was a lot of pain in this book, but Erdrich never overwhelmed the story or the reader with it; there was humor subtly woven through the words like sweetgrass, but it never took over. The angst - something I'm not
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normally keen to read about - was authentic, and both was and wasn't a focus of the story.

It seems that I can only be swayed to read literary fiction when there's a ghost involved. First Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders, and now The Sentence. Neither has let me down or made me regret my choice, but I think I might like The Sentence more, even though I rated it half a star lower. Lincoln in the Bardo was often difficult to read as the human condition was a little too magnified, human and on display to really enjoy it. But the structure just blew me away. The Sentence has a traditional narrative structure, and I became invested in the characters' lives and cared what happened to them, although Tookie's journey to prison is, while shortly told, both painful and painfully funny.

There are really two, maybe three, stories in this book. The Sentence begins with the aftermath of Flora's death and her initial haunting of the bookshop, all of which happens in November 2019. As the season and the months progress so, too, does Flora's haunting, seeming to focus on Tookie more than anyone else, and escalating in alarming ways.

Then as 2020 progresses into that fateful March, another story takes over - the story of the pandemic; how it crept up on people and suddenly exploded on the scene in a flurry of hand-washing, sanitisers, and food hoarding. Stay-at-home orders. Keeping the bookstore, Birchbark books open. At this point, I think, this story becomes more fictography, and Flora's ghost fades to almost nothingness as the narrative is about surviving, staying open, staying safe.

And then George Floyd is murdered by a policeman in broad daylight. Now the story becomes a fictitious memoir, but only in the sense that the names have changed. This is the Native American perspective of the riots and it's about as an effective narrative of the pain, anguish, anger, frustration, bitterness, hope, and need to heal as any I've read. It is the hardest part of the book to read.

As Minneapolis puts things back together, Flora comes back to the forefront of the plot again. These last few chapters were still beautifully written but it's this part of the story that kept me from going to the full 5 stars. The 'solution' to Flora's haunting seems suddenly abrupt; their idea for her release seems to come out of nowhere, although it's totally in keeping with the theme of the book. The characters don't know there's a theme, so how did they suddenly get from what are were going to do? to wait! I know what she wants! ? There's no progression here, so it feels bolt-of-lightning-from-the-blue-ish. And then the revelation Tookie has that does banish Flora. I know exactly what Erdrich was trying to do, and I know exactly to what earlier part of the story she was trying to tie it to, but it was clumsily done. I was left floundering for several paragraphs, and even when the 'denouement' came, it failed to have the emotional impact it should have had - I feel Erdrich missed a step that kept the reader from feeling the full power of the gut punch we're meant to feel.

It doesn't really matter though - this is a read that will remain with me, and one I want to talk about with everybody I come into contact with. A damn good story.
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LibraryThing member nivramkoorb
I have read most of Louise Erdrich's books done during the last 15 years. She focuses on Native American issues but always tells a good story. This one is filled with interesting characters but also required my attention to the "ghost story" aspect of the book. The book takes place in Minneapolis
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between Halloween 2019-2020 which covers the beginning of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. Tookie the main character is an ex-con who spent 10 years in jail for stealing a dead body to help a friend. It is told in a humorous way and gives you a good picture of Tookie and her approach to life. Ironically, and in one of the creative twists of the book, Tookie ends up marrying the tribal Police officer who arrested her. For me the ghost story concerning Flora who was an annoying customer of the book store where Tookie worked, dominated the book too much. However it was integral to the story and there are so many good things about relationships, family, native american issues, the pandemic, and George Floyd contained in it. It was a worthwhile read which touches on so many aspects of life during 2020. One of our best writers who happens to own the bookshop that was featured in the book. It is also a celebration of reading with a large reading list included at the end of the book.
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LibraryThing member kristykay22
Tookie is an ex-con, an Ojibwe woman, and a bookseller, and she is being haunted by the ghost of one of her most irritating customers, a white woman named Flora who claimed to be Native American and who Tookie learned after her death, considered Tookie to be her best friend. Taking place in
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Minneapolis between All Soul's Day 2019 and All Soul's Day 2020, this is also a pandemic novel and a novel that is saturated with the anger and protest after the murder of George Floyd. Tookie is both a hard and easy character to love. Her sense of humor, her love of language and reading, and the playful companionship she shares with her husband, Pollux (a Pottawatomie ex-cop who arrested her a decade before their marriage) are infinitely endearing, but Tookie has a tendency to always get in her own way, to be stubborn and difficult and sensitive and uncommunicative, which makes her both frustrating and fascinating. It also makes her very easy to haunt.

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.
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LibraryThing member Beth.Clarke
Ghost stories? Not usually for me. Bookstore setting? usually too bland. THE SENTENCE - has both of these things, but I loved it. Louise Erdrich has a way of finding a unique take on telling a story and writes her characters with undeniable personality. Although set at the onset of the pandemic and
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covers the time period with the George Floyd murder, these huge events do not take over the storyline. The audiobook narrator was amazing!
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LibraryThing member Narshkite
I have mentioned before that I find it much easier to ramble on about what I don't like than to explain what I do like about a book. Still I will try.

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.
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This whole book is a love letter to storytelling. Erdrich does not just praise books in the general sense (she does that too) but she praises very specific books in beautiful ways. Tookie, the main character, is guided by authors from Marcel Proust to Billy-Ray Belcourt. Tookie is an Ojibwe woman with past addiction issues who spent time in prison and she is getting life lessons from Proust (and Colson Whitehead and Toni Morrison and Penelope Fitzgerald and Claire Lispector and Virginia Woolf and Turgenev and and and.) One of the things that disturbs me in reading reviews here on GR is the number of times people don't like books because they don't like the characters or approve of their choices. That is a Fox News (or CNBC) version of reading, responding only to things which validate your thoughts and opinions and definitions of normal. In fact reading is about expanding your mind, the best reading is the reading that challenges and blows up your assumptions about right and wrong. Erdrich really doubles down on that point, that reading expands us and gives us other ways to see things. If we just read about people we regularly have dinner with then our time would be better spent just having dinner with friends. Reading should never be an echo chamber, and Erdrich makes that clear. The literary refences here are the best kind of easter egg hunt for book geeks, and for me they added to my tbr. Even if you don't read the book (though you should) I recommend you hit harpercolins(dot)com/audio/thesentence for a list of Tookie's favorite books. Tookie starts and ends her journey with us consulting a dictionary (an actual paper one.) Words matter and you cannot really change facts or definitions by making up alternatives.

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.
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LibraryThing member novelcommentary
I've probably read about ten books of hers, one of my favorite authors. In this one she is actually a character, owning a bookstore and employing our main character Tookie. Tookie begins the narrative explaining how she got arrested for taking a dead body across state lines, thinking she was
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helping a grieving friend. Later while serving jail time, she learns that the body was strapped with cocaine and the two woman involved set her up. On the plus side, she wound up marrying Pollux, the arresting officer. The story hinges around the death and eventual haunting of a complaining bookstore customer named Flora. It appears she died reading one particular sentence in a book that Tookie is afraid to read. She buried the book in her back yard fearing that actually reading a certain sentence could kill her. Of course when she tells this to Louise, our doppelgänger author, Louise replies, " I wish I could write a sentence like that. " great line.
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.
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LibraryThing member clamairy
I have heard buzzings about Louise Erdich for years, and after she won the Pulitzer I must admit I sort of relegated her to the 'probably too chewy for me' category in my head. But The Sentence made it onto a bunch of 'Best of 2021' lists so I decided to borrow the ebook and give it a shot.

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protagonist is a Native American ex-convict working in a book store, who ends up being haunted by a customer who has passed. I think the thing I loved the most about this book was the constant conversations about books. There are even lists of titles in places. Anything I had already read on the lists were books that I loved, so I can only assume just about all of the rest are worth my time.

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.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
Set in contemporary Minneapolis (with many places I'm familiar with), this is a readable and sometimes fun different type of book from Erdrich. Tookie works in an independent book store owned by Louise. She has just been released from prison for moving a corpse and is now married to the man who
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arrested her. While at the bookstore, she encounters a ghost of a former customer, Flora.

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.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
Just when I think Louise Erdrich can't improve on her books she brings out another one that just wowed me. This one was written during the pandemic and that is a major plot development. It's very well handled but the bookstore community is what I really liked about this book. As Louise, the
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bookstore owner in the book, says to the major character, Tookie, "We got essential worker status..." As we all found out during the lockdown books are essential.

Tookie lost her mother to a drug overdose when she was quite young and stayed with relatives until she completed school. At school one teacher, Jackie, took a great interest in her and kept in touch even after. In 2005 Tookie was convicted of serious crimes involving drugs and transporting a dead body and sentenced to 60 years in prison. Through the dogged efforts of her defence lawyer she was released after 10 years. She had survived that period of incarceration by reading everything she could get her hands on starting with a dictionary that Jackie sent to her. So, it was perhaps natural that upon her release she would find a job with a native bookstore in Minneapolis. She also married Pollux, the native cop that had arrested her and their marriage turned out to be a great love match.Pollux was sought after for native ceremonies as he had learned (and was still learning) from elders so that the knowledge could be saved. Their life was going on pretty peacefully until the bookstore's most difficult customer, Flora, died in the fall of 2019 and started haunting the bookstore. She only came when Tookie was working and mostly it was just sounds that Tookie heard. As the months went on and Flora continued to haunt the bookstore Tookie tried to get her to leave. Flora was one persistent ghost. The other major event for Tookie and Pollux was the return of their foster daughter, Hetta. And she wasn't alone. During the time she had been away in Santa Fe she had given birth to a baby, a boy named Jarvis. Tookie, who had never been around babies before, fell in love with Jarvis. In so doing her relationship with Hetta became much closer. Then, as everyone in the world knows, in early 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic hit and everything changed. Even after the bookstore reopened for online and pickup orders life was stressful. Tookie was working alone in the bookstore when Flora tried to take control of her body, totally freaking Tookie out. She couldn't go back to work unless someone else could be there and even then she was spooked (so to speak). The George Floyd murder occurred setting off at first peaceful protests but then rioters started looting and burning. Hetta marched in the protests and got pepper sprayed. Pollux went out to help feed people and try to maintain law and order. Tookie looked after Jarvis and prayed the bookstore wouldn't be torched. It was a horrible time for the people of Minneapolis. And still Flora was haunting the bookstore! All of us who lived through the lockdowns and scares can only imagine what that type of stress would do to a person. Tookie shows her humanity by breaking down but then shows her courage by getting back up to face more challenges. She should go down as one of the great heroines of literature.

I reserve a five star rating for books that are not just great literature but also have an important message to convey. In this book the support of all the different people associated with the bookstore that helps Tookie (and others) survive is that message. During the first year of the pandemic I think we all learned how important our friends and family were to us. This book reminds us of that valuable lesson and I think the timing is perfect.
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006267112X / 9780062671127

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