The Sentence by Louise Erdrich


This book features¬†a person who works in a bookstore having to deal with the ghost of an annoying former customer who was haunting the store. Anyone who has worked with the public can identify with such a scenario, imagining someone so troublesome that even death would not stop them. And it’s true that when Flora comes to the store, she knocks over stacks of books, rustles around, and even reshelves books in the wrong places. But this is not her story.

Tookie, an Indigenous person, narrates the story, beginning with the sentence she received of 60 years in prison when she was in her 30s. Her friend had asked her to move the body of her boyfriend and Tookie did so without noticing that he had drugs hidden under his arms. Though she clearly didn’t serve 60 years, she was in prison long enough to become a prodigious reader. When she left prison, she got a job at Louise’s bookstore by telling her what she liked to read. Louise said, “‘This is a dark time for little bookstores and we probably won’t make it,’ she said. ‘Would you like a job?'” By the way, Louise Erdrich owns Birchbark Books and Native Arts in Minneapolis.

Tookie is married to Pollux, a member of the Tribal Police. He is a wonderful cook and the description of his effort to perfect corn soup was inspiring. They didn’t have children, but his bratty niece Hetta who hated Tookie was very close to him. Hetta showed up with a baby and was transformed into a thoughtful person and even Tookie came to love holding baby Jarvis. The bookstore family is also irresistible and full of good advice. Jackie explains about Flora, “‘Some people are slippery,’ Jackie went on. They are difficult to deal with after death. They don’t behave like dead people. They are death resisters.”

I found it painful when Tookie narrated the beginning of the pandemic and worse was the George Floyd murder and its aftermath in Minneapolis. I appreciate the importance of Tookie and the Indigenous community’s experience of these times and see the value of examining that experience. It did require some breaks, because after all, we in the midst of the omicron wave and the rejection of facing the realities of race is evident every day.

The pain was alleviated by what we should embrace in our own lives. Tookie can’t help letting her love show itself, Pollux is steadfast without fail, Hetta continues to surprise, and the bookstore keeps that family busy. The warmth, love, respect for tradition, and playfulness are the aspects of the book I remember with joy.

And one more thing: ¬†Tookie is all about giving the customers recommendations; she gave the customer she calls Dissatisfaction the book Deacon King Kong by James McBride. He called back the next day saying it was packed with life and love and he didn’t want it to end. At the end of the book is the section Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books, an impressively long list that could last a person a lifetime.

Louise Erdrich, The Sentence, Harper, 2021, 400 pages (I read the kindle version). Available in the public library.

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