Superior Reads


I always like to end the year on a high note and Louise Erdrich’s THE SENTENCE was a fabulous way to wrap up my reading year. Compelling, propulsive, entertaining, and an important edition to Erdrich’s oeuvre, THE SENTENCE might just be my favorite book of 2021.

If you love books, if you’ve ever been in Birchbark Books, and especially if you are or have been a bookseller, you’re going to love THE SENTENCE. From the ghost that haunts the early pages to the protagonist’s recommended reading list on the last, I was enthralled. I didn’t want it to end, so I read slowly, luxuriously savoring every syllable, sentence, and scene. Am I gushing? Let me tell you why . . .

Tookie, our protagonist, is humble, conflicted, and a bibliophile who is very well read, even if she did much of her reading in solitary confinement. She’s an Ojibwe woman with a troubled past. She’s arrested by Pollux, a tribal police officer and her future husband (we’ll get to that), for transporting a dead body across state lines. It was a well-intentioned favor for a friend – retrieve her friend’s boyfriend’s body from the home of his current lover, in exchange for a load of cash that will help make Tookie’s bank account flush again. Unfortunately, it was a set up and the corpse had cocaine duck-taped to his armpits. She got sixty years but after serving ten, her sentence is commuted. Upon her release, she gets a job at Birchbark Books, the iconic Minnesota and Native American independent bookstore owned by Louise Erdrich. Louise makes an appearance or two as well, which adds to the charm of the novel.

Four years later, one of Tookie’s more annoying customers, Flora is found dead, with a handwritten manuscript splayed open next to her body. During a staff meeting, Tookie speculates about which sentence may have killed Flora – and Louise responds with a wistful, “I wish I could write a sentence like that.” Flora’s daughter brings the murderous manuscript to Tookie, and not long after that, Flora’s ghost starts showing up at the bookstore. Flora was a wannabe who claimed an unsubstantiated Native American heritage. When Tookie starts reading the manuscript, she discovers that it is the story of Native girl who falls ill, is rescued by a white farm family, and is then enslaved by them. The story haunts Tookie, and she tries unsuccessfully to burn the manuscript before finally burying it under a tree in her back yard. Flora’s presence at the bookstore is banal at first – a book knocked off a shelf – but as the weeks progress, becomes malevolent. She clearly wants something from Tookie, and it’s not the book she ordered before her death. One night, alone in the bookstore packing mail orders, Flora pushes Tookie to the floor and “unzipping her like a wet suit” tries to inhabit her.

If all this isn’t unsettling enough, there is a frightening new coronavirus killing people around the globe, and in Tookie’s own neighborhood, George Floyd is murdered by the police. In the days that follow Floyd’s murder, Tookie’s neighborhood becomes a war zone, and Hetta, Pollux’s daughter, shows up with a new baby in tow. Tookie’s closed off heart begins to crack open. She’s spent years pushing away the memory of her drug-addicted mother and keeping Pollux (though she’s crazy for him) an emotional arms length away, but now Hetta, who has previously only shown disdain for Tookie, is calling her “Mom”, and letting her hold her impossibly darling baby.

“When my feelings were too much for me I used to wrap myself in blankets and lie in my closet waiting for the feelings to pass. At one point, I decided to become a person who didn’t feel so much. I stand by that decision, though it didn’t work.”

When Flora attempted her Tookie break-in, it was as if everything in Tookie’s life broke open – fires break out in the neighborhood, tear gas hangs in the air, and the future is uncertain.

“I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid I won’t remember this year. I want this now to be the now where we save our place, your place, on earth.” Tookie tells her beloved grandson.

Erdrich has written another masterpiece. THE SENTENCE is a compelling read that serves as a time capsule. Maybe one day we will look back and remember the Summer of 2020 – not just as a period of loss and trauma – but as the antidote to it. E.B. White famously wrote that a writer must not only reflect and interpret the world but must also sound the alarm. THE SENTENCE does just that.

This is Lin Salisbury with Superior Reviews. Listen to my author interviews the fourth Thursday of every month at 7:00 pm and the following Saturday morning at 6:00 am on WTIP Superior Reads.

2 thoughts on “The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

  1. I just made a batch of maple dark sugar cookies using maple sugar I bought at Birchbark Books. Love that store and will get this book! Thanks Lin and Happy Solstice. Randa Downs


    1. Have you read The Sentence yet, Randa? I love that Louise included herself as one of the characters!


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