The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

Cover of The Sentence by Louise Erdirch against a bookcase.

November is Native American Heritage month, so it’s a great time to check out the plethora of amazing Indigenous authors.  I’ve written reviews on some already, and I’ll be doing more later. (There’s absolutely zero reason to limit it to a particular month!)  If you’re looking to support Native-owned businesses and get some great books by Native authors, check out Birchbark Books.  It’s an independent bookstore whose owner is Louise Erdrich, a member of the Turtle Mountain band of Chippewa Indians. She is also the author of today’s feature, The Sentence

The Sentence is, in a sense, a ghost story. A dead customer haunts a small Minneapolis bookstore. Not just any customer, of course, but the most annoying one. Because of course that’s the kind of customer who would come back and haunt a place. Flora was a white woman who desperately wanted to be Indigenous. Tookie, a thirty-something Native American employee, tries to find out how to help Flora find peace and move on. She soon learns that Flora died while reading a particular sentence in a book. When Tookie tries to read the book herself, eerie things begin to happen to her.

Yet the ghost of a frustrating customer isn’t the only silenced voice demanding to be heard. The story begins in November 2019.  Within months, the world fractures with the outbreak of Covid-19 and the Minneapolis police’s murder of George Floyd. The ghosts of our history soon fill the homes in which people sequester and then flood the streets along with the protestors, police, and tear gas. Tragedies big and small, intimate and emblazoned on screens around the world can only be ignored at our own peril. 

I cannot praise this book highly enough.  The writing is just so damn good.  (A common feature of Erdrich’s books.) The Sentence contains commentary on race and justice (and injustice), family, history, and more, but throughout it all is the power of words. The way Tookie constantly searches for just the right word at any given moment, and Erdrich’s way of breaking them down – well, I have to let them speak for themselves. The book opens:

While in prison, I received a dictionary.  It was sent to me with a note.  This is the book I would take to a deserted island. Other books were to arrive from my teacher.  But as she had known, this one proved of endless use.  The first word I looked up was the word ‘sentence.’ I had received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an afterlife.  So the word with its yawning c, belligerent little e’s, with its hissing sibilants and double n’s, this repetitive bummer of a word made of slyly stabbing letters that surrounded an isolate human t, this word was in my thoughts every moment of every day.  Without a doubt, had the dictionary not arrived, this light word that lay so heavily upon me would have crushed me, or what was left of me after the strangeness of what I’d done.

It’s the kind of writing that sends a thrill. It makes you wish you could somehow harness even a smidgen of this skill.

Setting the book in a version of her own store, The Sentence is heaven for book lovers. There are so many titles referenced, and a bibliography at the end, my to-be-read list grew another three feet. I also appreciated the feedback on how not to be that kind of customer. You know, this kind:

            ‘I could have bought in on Amazon, but I said to myself – although I live miles away, other side of St. Paul – I said to myself that I really should support the little independent bookstores. So I drove all the way here and you know it took me an hour because I-94 is down to one lane again?’

There’s a lot of little lessons on how not to be a well-meaning but cringy white liberal, something we as a group often need. 

But on a more serious note, it’s still odd to read about the early days of the pandemic and the protests. Obviously, I lived through them. Some of the scenes mirrored my own experiences – searching frantically for something I could use as a mask because we needed groceries and didn’t have delivery options set up yet, trying to figure out whether I really needed to wipe down said groceries, the sudden shrinking of the world to the walls of my home.

And then the video. The calls for mama. The increasingly desperate pleas of bystanders to stop, as George Floyd’s killer triumphantly corrupted one Black man’s symbol of protest against police brutality to take the life of another Black man. The protests. The burning of the precinct. The helicopters and the curfews and the National Guard. The weighing of the importance of being part of the protests vs. the risk of a deadly virus that thrives in close contact.

As a Minnesota native who left the state years ago, I appreciated having a first-hand account of living through it. If you’ll forgive the personal digression, it brought me back to an example of how our education shapes us, and the importance of having a variety of voices.  I remember clearly being in first grade, learning about the Civil War and being proud that my state was on the right side of that historic crucible, as though I was personally responsible for that choice.

As I got older, I learned a more complex side of that history – that during that same period, Minnesota’s treatment of the Dakota led to the largest mass execution in U.S. history. In college, I saw a photo of a lynching that occurred in Duluth during the 1920s. Throughout elementary school, I learned about the Rondo neighborhood, a Black middle-class neighborhood destroyed in the 1950s to make room for the interstate (I-94). 

More and more, I learned that while Minnesota was a great place to live and raise a family for white folks, it was a completely different story for Blacks, American Indians, Hmong, Somalis, and others. Some people might complain that this is critical race theory.  On the contrary, it’s vital to remember that there’s no simple “good vs. bad.” One can admire the ideals a state or country might have, but it’s imperative to also recognize its flaws. Life is complicated; history is complicated.  Good and bad can co-exist in an identity and it is our job to recognize both and everything in between. The ghosts of our history can guide us, not haunt us.

If we listen to them.

Once The Sentence reaches May 2020, sections are labeled by day: May 25, May 30, May 31.  And then May 32, May 34.  It’s an encapsulation of how that monumental month stretched past our usual boundaries. Life couldn’t simply keep going on as it always had. It didn’t stop, but it was not the same.

Some things in life are just that powerful.  A disease. A video. A murder.

A sentence. 

Find it here.

5 thoughts on “The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

  1. I loved this book so much. It is also a love letter to Minneapolis, in its own way. I love how she name checks restaurants and places.
    I didn’t think I was ready to read a book about the summer of 2020, but this book proved me totally wrong. She captures the experience of being at the epicenter of the uprising in a truly incredible way, and I loved the feeling that someone really got what we lived through.

    • Excellent points. It was so weird to watch all of this on TV, but not actually be there. I felt like this book gave me a more in-depth look, and probably better than anything I would have gotten had I even been there.

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