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.

The Library of the Unwritten

(And other novels from Hell’s Library) by A.J. Hackwith

Book covers of The Library of the Unwritten, The Archive of the Forgotten, and The God of Lost Words, next to a Halloween decoration of a stack of books with a skull on top and a bottle that says Love Potions next to it.

I love novels about books and reading, so The Library of the Unwritten grabbed my attention while I wandered through the bookstore.  When I read the subtitle “A novel from Hell’s Library,” my excitement grew, and when I read the back of the book, I was hooked.  The premise is there is a library, located in Hell, but not a part of Hell, filled with humanity’s unwritten books.  Every story started but never finished, each idea mulled but never realized, appears in the leather-bound books of the Library of the Unwritten.

Every library needs a librarian, of course, and the current librarian is a condemned soul named Claire, who died roughly thirty years prior and found herself an apprentice to the former Librarian.  After he disappeared, she took the mantel of Librarian, and with her assistant, a Muse named Brevity, Claire makes sure the Library remains safe from the demons surrounding it and perhaps more importantly, that the books remain asleep. 

For the unwritten desperately want their stories told.  Occasionally, a book will manifest as a character and try to make its way back to Earth and its author.  It’s the librarian’s job to make sure that doesn’t happen.  There are a few exceptions: the Damsel Wing is a fun addition. The damsels originated as ladies whose only purpose in their (unfinished) story was to serve as the hero’s prize. Fed up with their lack of characterization and opportunity to grow within their story, and with no desire to meet the hacks who tried to write them, the Librarians allow them to live outside their books in their own section of the Library. 

But overall, a character must return to its book.  As our story opens, a hero-type character made a break from the Library and is back among the living.  Claire, Brevity, and Leto, a fairly new demon, are on the hunt.  Unbeknownst to them, a fallen angel named Ramiel is on a mission from Heaven, also hunting for pages from a book. 

As much as I would love to go into detail about all these characters and their adventures, I want you to be able to experience it all for yourself.  This is a fantastic world and I love how Hackwith pulls it all together.  Claire & Co. travel to other realms, including Valhalla, that have their own wings of the Library.  All the way through, circumstances force them to examine who they are and who they want to become.  When Library of the Unwritten ended, I hated to say goodbye to those characters and that world.

Thankfully, there are two more books: The Archive of the Forgotten and The God of Lost Words.  I won’t say much about them, since I don’t want to spoil anything that happens in the first book.  Both are great stories and continue to expand the realms and the characters’ development. 

The Archive of the Forgotten has a lot of story lines dealing with the immediate fallout from the previous book.  It’s well done, but it has a thing that I struggle with a lot in stories – the separation of characters.  It makes sense – everyone needs growth and sometimes our traumas isolate us from those we care about and who care about us.  But it can be hard to watch (or read).  The God of the Lost, meanwhile, left me in tears by the end, which surprised me.  It was such a beautiful ode to reading, writing, and creating that I found myself overwhelmed and filled with love.

Hackwith’s conception of the afterlife is fascinating.  Parts of it reminded me of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, shows like Supernatural, and the movie Constantine.  But those are just some of the ingredients that bring it all together.  Hackwith creates a fascinating world with its own philosophies and theologies. As mention earlier, there are various realms reflecting other belief systems.  Even Christianity’s Heaven and Hell exist, with some changes.  Hell in this version is only for those who condemn themselves to it.  For only a second, I thought that wouldn’t be a terrible system, thinking of how few people would want to be in Hell.  Then I realized that such a concept would mean a Heaven filled with the narcissistic egoists who believe they are flawless and continually the victim, while those who struggled to do the right thing would hold themselves to an impossible standard and thus condemn themselves unjustly for eternity. 

But Heaven poses a dilemma I’ve noticed in a lot of modern stories.  If we include angels and demons, Heaven and Hell, in a story, there’s the problem of God.  It seems easy for us to accept the idea of Satan to be real and active in human affairs; devils walking among us would explain so much.  But a force of omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent good?  If such a god exists, why wouldn’t they help us?  If angels are around, why don’t they ever seem to be winning? Instead of Heaven being paradise, we seem better able to imagine it as, at best, a sterile neutrality, burdened with bureaucracy and an absent Deity. 

Sure, it makes sense that we can’t have such an all-powerful being around in our art, able to end all conflict in the blink of an eye – there isn’t much of a story there.  But when we look at earlier times, there didn’t seem to be a problem with imagining such divinity and still having the world be a fairly miserable place. 

Has our sense of justice and fairness changed? If we create God in our image, have we reached a point where we realize that such a thing could not exist and the world continue as it does?  Heaven as a bureaucracy – something started with reasons and order and processes for a defined purpose, but now just continuing via inertia, without the spark or soul to give it true life or meaning.  Perhaps, however, the right soul could make the needed changes. 

These were just some of the thoughts Library of the Unwritten and the rest of Hell’s Library’s novels inspired. At the end, it once again made me so incredibly grateful for all the authors out there, all the readers, and all the libraries and librarians, wherever they may be.  

Find it here