Read by Louise Erdrich - 709 minutes
Published November 2021 by HarperCollins Publishers
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.
I was gifted this book last year at my book club's annual Christmas party and thought it would make a great choice for my book club for this year. I mean, Louise Erdrich always gives you a lot to think about and talk about, right? Hmmm, not so much for my book club; no one else was all that thrilled with this one. Which made me the odd man out, because I really enjoyed it, despite what I perceived to be its flaws.
I'd be interested to find out when Erdrich began writing this book because it feels a bit like she might have started it in 2019, intending it to be one book, and then 2020 arrived and the book went an entirely different way. There are, in fact, a lot of different kinds of book within this one. It begins with a kind of tragicomic crime escapade that results in Tookie being incarcerated, sentenced to 60 years. Which, of course, made me immediately think this book had veered into a completely different direction. It did, just not the direction I expected. It's a story of redemption, it's a ghost story, there's a supernatural element, it's an homage to books and reading, it's a love story, and, for a time, there's an element of nonfiction. In lesser hands, this could have been a disastrous mess. Even as skilled as Erdrich is, it sometimes felt a bit disjointed. But I was willing to forgive Erdrich that because I was so invested in these characters.
As always, Erdrich explores native culture and the Indigerati (her term for urban, intellectual Native Americans). To that end, she talks about the foods (including the commodity foods that the government handed out), traditions, solidarity with black people, and white appropriation (there are two characters who seem unable to understand the boundaries).
This book touches on so many themes: racism, Erdrich uses the ghost to explore hauntings in all of its forms (personal pasts, colonial haunting and how it has played out):
"Think how white people believe their houses...are haunted by Indians, when it's really the opposite. We're haunted by settlers and their descendants. We're haunted by the Army Medical Museum and countless natural history museums and small-town museums who still have unclaimed bones in their collections."
The Sentence is not just the title of this book; it is a running theme. We start with Tookie's sentence to prison ("This light word lay so heavily on me.") then the sentence in language, many of which play an important part in the book. There is the sentence in a book that Tookie believes killed Flora, the sentence that Tookie believes will cause Flora to pass on, the sentence that actually does cause Flora to leave the book store, the sentence that Pollux waits years to hear Tookie say, and the final sentences of the book, "The door is open. Go." Finally, there is the death sentence given to George Floyd and the hundreds of thousands who died of Covid.
I loved that books saved Tookie in prison, that they became so important during 2020 that bookstores were considered essential, that a book plays such an important role in this novel, and that the book store is a central fixture of the novel. The books in the novel forge relationships, unveil history, bring hope.
An interesting bit in this book is that the bookstore Tookie works in is Birchbark Books, owned by a woman named Louise. Yes indeed, Erdrich owns a bookstore of that name in Minneapolis. This was a listen/read combo for me and I don't think you could go wrong either way. If you listen, try to find the book list that Erdrich includes at the end of the book. My to-be-read list exploded!