Louise Erdrich has been astonishingly prolific in recent years, publishing one extraordinary novel after another, each idiosyncratic but all blending wit and empathy and exploring large cultural concerns in the microscopic and highly personalized context of her eccentric characters.
Erdrich’s new novel, “The Sentence”, which takes place in Minneapolis between 2019 and 2020, is a strange, utterly original, exhilarating novel about intergenerational trauma, the criminal justice system and the lingering after-shocks of incarceration, the COVID-19 pandemic, and the rage and sorrow unleashed by the murder of George Floyd. It is a ghost story, a love letter to the written word, an exploration of Indigenous identity, an urgent response to a volatile and cataclysmic world. At once brutally realistic and weirdly metafictional, it burns with moral passion, brims with humor, and captivates with its striking and irresistible voice.
Unlike her last novel, “The Night Watchman,” which ranged across a wide variety of perspectives, “The Sentence” is told almost exclusively from the point of view of one person. Its narrator, a Native American woman named Tookie, is perhaps Erdrich’s most indelible creation: hilarious, smart, wry, with, as she puts it, both “a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red” and “a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered.”
In her aimless, hard-drinking and drug-addled, intermittently employed thirties, Tookie was arrested for “stealing a corpse” stuffed with drugs and transporting it across state lines. She’d thought she was helping a friend and knew nothing about the drugs, but nonetheless “received an impossible sentence of sixty years from the lips of a judge who believed in an after-life.”
After seven years in prison, Tookie’s sentence is unexpectedly commuted to time served. Emerging, blinking and disoriented, into a changed world, Tookie reconnects with Pollux, the police officer who’d arrested her; they fall in love and marry. She finds a job at Birchbark Books (the small independent store Louise Erdrich founded). Led by a meta-fictional Erdrich, who has a ghost in her house, publishes a novel about her grandfather (2020′s Pulitzer Prize winning “The Night Watchman”), and has her book tour interrupted by the pandemic, the bookstore employees are a motley crew of intellectuals, artists, and eccentrics who share a passion for books and for their ardently book-loving customers.
The bookstore’s most irritating customer, book-besotted but needy Flora, dies on All Soul’s Day, 2019, and proceeds to haunt the bookstore. In life, Flora was an Indian “wannabe,” a white woman who volunteered in the Native American community, at times claimed Indian ancestry, and was consumed by her “earnest, unaccountable, persistent, self-obliterating delusion.” Once dead, she becomes “a slinky, needy, invasive spirit,” making “rustling noises” and moving books around. Tookie can’t tell Pollux, who won’t stand for any talk of ghosts, and feels increasingly isolated. When Flora’s foster daughter gives Tookie the book her mother died while reading, “The Sentence: An Indian Captivity, 1862-1883,” Tookie senses its ominous power. Had “the book sentenced [her]...most annoying and also best customer to death?” Does it contain secrets- or “a very, very powerful sentence” that could kill Tookie as well?
As Tookie tries to exorcise Flora’s spirit from the bookstore, solve the mystery of her death, and decipher the enigma of her book, COVID strikes the community and threatens both the bookstore and her loved ones. Haunting becomes a universal condition. COVID-19 is perceived as “spectral, uncanny.” “Talk about being haunted…[Trump] was an ache in the brain,” Tookie mutters. Characters can’t evade the shadow of past misdeeds and are revisited by buried longings and resentments they’d thought long dead. “The hospital emitted ghosts,” Tookie muses. “The world was filling with ghosts. We were a haunted country in a haunted world.”
The precariousness of identity, its vulnerability to haunting, dissolution, erasure, cultural appropriation, especially for Indigenous people, who’ve “endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture,” is a major theme of “The Sentence.” But at the same time, identity’s fluidity and permeability allow for the possibility of growth.
People’s capacity for change, their ability to transcend the limits of the sentences they receive, to exceed the sentences used to sum them up, to use the sentences they read and speak as portals onto a larger life and an avenue towards freedom, is one of Erdrich’s most moving ethical points here. Tookie goes from being a hard drinking, lovesick mess to finding a “life of surprising love” and deep contentment with a devoted husband, who describes her transformation with characteristically affectionate humor: “You are not the same person who shanghaied ol’ Budgie. You are an intelligent bookish nerd who knows a thousand ways to cook a fish.” Her stepdaughter’s baby elicits maternal feelings she’d never previously possessed. “Stained, tainted,” Tookie purifies herself via an encounter with the innocence of infancy and a recollection of how innocence is depicted in literature: “And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.” The Wordsworthian seer blest cracks her open and reshapes her for the better.
For literature is instrumental in the metamorphoses that Erdrich’s characters enact and undergo. In prison, the gift of a dictionary, the stored up bounty in her memory of all the books she’d read in school, and reading prison library books with “murderous attention” rescue Tookie from suicidal despair and give her the range to imagine and create a future for herself. The bookstore employees invent themselves via their “book crushes” and literary obsessions; Tookie marvels at how her customers “change because of a book.” “The Sentence” is a testament to the life-making importance of stories and to the bookstore as necessary incubator of the imagination.
Erdrich’s novel, too, is haunted by literary ghosts — brimming with allusions, it also contains a long list of Tookie’s favorite books. Haunting can be eviscerating, but it can also be fruitful and generative. “Ghosts bring elegies and epitaphs, but also signs and wonders,” Tookie tells us. The Sentence is a wonder, and Erdrich a writer of wonders. Surely the signs portend, as the works now imply by their own majesty, that the Nobel Prize approaches as fitting recognition.
Priscilla Gilman is a former professor of English literature at Yale University and Vassar College and the author of “The Anti-Romantic Child: A Memoir of Unexpected Joy.”
By Louise Erdrich
Harper, 400 pages, $28.99