“sentence (n)1. A grammatical unit comprising a word or a group of words that is separate from any other grammatical construction, and usually consists of at least one subject with its predicate and contains a finite verb or verb phrase; for example, ‘The door is open’ and ‘Go!’ are sentences.”
I didn’t know what to expect from Louise Erdrich’s metafictional ghost story The Sentence (2021) and she still managed to surprise me. Starting with the title, Erdrich addresses a number of issues in this story, told mostly by Tookie, who works at a bookstore in Minneapolis, owned by a well-known writer named Louise. Tookie is being haunted by Flora, a (dead) customer.
Tookie served ten years of a different kind of sentence, a sixty-year sentence for moving a dead body across state lines. This is Erdrich — of course there is more to Tookie’s story than that. In the opening chapters, I was transported back to the author’s earlier work, where she exhibits that blend — things are terrible, tragic, and hilariously funny. Tookie’s lawyer works on appeals for years, and she is released after ten. The bookstore becomes her haven. Flora, a European-American woman who is an Indian-wannabe, dies, and immediately after that Tookie starts hearing her footsteps in the store. Books fall off shelves. Flora’s daughter Kateri gives Tookie a book Flora wanted her to have, and the haunting gets worse. The story unfolds over a year, a particular year.
That particular year is 2020, which means a strange new sickness abruptly makes an appearance, changing everything. Tookie struggles with a lockdown, being haunted, the presence of her stepdaughter and stepdaughter’s infant son — struggles with issues with her ex-cop husband, and with her own mental health. The story carousels through different narrative tones: somber, furious, frightening, funny, always elegantly guided, flowing naturally over the course of four seasons.
Ghosts are a big theme in The Sentence, and so is theft: the theft of Native lands, Native bones, and even, like Flora, the theft of culture, because Flora always felt like she was an Indian. A coworker at the store insists that Flora stole a reference book from her, and it seems like it was the book Tookie has. (Which Tookie buried in her yard because it was freaking her out.)
A large part of the second half of the book addresses the Minneapolis response to the murder of George Floyd. Because Pollux, Tookie’s husband, is a former cop, I expected, and got, a different perspective on the crime and the demonstrations that followed. Like Tookie, I held my breath when stepdaughter Hetta and bookseller colleague Asema mask up and go to one of the demonstrations. Like Flora, Covid is always present, mostly in the background, but it does strike, and when it does, it is close to home.
I thought — and still think — that it’s too early for anyone to write a “definitive” pandemic novel about this pandemic. Before I read The Sentence I would have hesitated to read any work of fiction where it played a large role. Because this story unfolds in close to real time, the addition of the virus adds an unknown — like Flora’s motivation for haunting the store — that the characters must contend with. Erdrich carries this off perfectly.
After separation, grief and soul-searching, Tookie reaches a resolution with Flora. Along the way, we meet wonderful characters and peer into their stories, like Laurent, the rugaroo, Pensamon, Asema and Hetta. We share in wonderful celebrations and mourn devastating losses. I didn’t know what to expect, and I got a wonder of a book.
In this New York Times bestselling 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.