Title: The Sentence
Author: Louise Erdrich
Publication date: November 9, 2021
Length: 387 pages
Genre: Contemporary fiction
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.
The main character of The Sentence is Tookie, a Native American woman who is sentenced to sixty years in prison after a misadventure involving a corpse — a crime that we hear about in the opening chapter, presented in a practically comic manner. Her sentence is eventually commuted, but only after she serves many years. Prison changes Tookie, but one of the most lasting effects is that she becomes a voracious reader during that time. It’s only natural that she ends up working in a bookstore — Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, owned by a novelist named Louise. (And yes, Louise Erdrich does actually own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis in real life).
The book follows Tookie’s life as a bookseller, as a woman married to her longtime love Pollux, and as a survivor and a witness. She’s also a woman who’s haunted, literally — an annoying bookstore customer named Flora continues to visit the store even after her death, and Tookie becomes consumed by a need to understand the ghost’s motivations and how to be rid of her.
The Sentence was my book group’s pick for October, and reactions were decidedly mixed. While many appreciated the author’s magnificent way with words, the general sentiment was that the story itself was overly complicated and uneven in tone. Midway through, we’re in 2020, and the narrative becomes heavily focused on both COVID and the impact of George Floyd’s murder, so much so that it often feels more like narrative non-fiction.
I was very absorbed while reading the book, but in the end, I didn’t quite know what to make of it all. The story veers in all sorts of directions, and I’m not sure that the overall themes and messages hit home.
That said, the writing is amazing, so rather than attempting to write a thorough review, I thought I’d just share some favorite lines and passages:
I’m still not strictly rational. How could I be? I sell books.
Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.
Pen had started working here because she developed obsessions with female authors, alive and dead, and was having a May-December romance with Isak Dinesen’s stories.
When I creep into our bed, there is the joy and relief of a person entering a secret dimension. Here, I shall be useless. The world can go on without me. Here I shall be held by love.
Sometimes Jackie resented a perfectly good book because it ‘forced’ her to stay up all night.
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.
As it turned out, books were important, like food, fuel, heat, garbage collection, snow shoveling, and booze.
I stare at my husband’s face, the new cheekbones of a skinny man, his surprising beauty, and I decided to live for love again and take the change of another lifetime.
Beyond the terrific writing, I loved all the references to favorite books, so I was absolutely delighted to see that the book includes a section called Totally Biased List of Tookie’s Favorite Books at the end, with sections called things like “Ghost-Managing Book List”, “Short Perfect Novels”, “Sublime Books”, and more. I will definitely be returning to these reading lists for future inspiration!
Wrapping it all up — there were elements of The Sentence that I loved, and I’m happy to have read it, but I’m still not quite sure that it worked for me completely. I’m really curious to hear how others felt about this book. Have you read The Sentence? If so, please share your reaction!