The Sentence
By Louise Erdrich
ISBN: 978-1472157003
Little Brown, UK
400pp.

Tookie is a native of the American city of Minneapolis and an indigenous Ojibwe woman. She had a turbulent childhood, followed by an unstable young adulthood that seems to her as if it stretched on for far too long.

In her 30s, still not having figured out how to keep a job or lead a balanced life, she is convicted of the crime of transporting a dead body — plus some extra baggage she didn’t know about — across state lines. By the time she finds out she was set up, it is much too late and she has already been sentenced to jail for 60 years.

In prison, she is sent a dictionary and, through it, discovers how much she loves the written word. Thanks to her good behaviour and the time spent reading in the prison library, Tookie gets out early. Armed with her love for books and not much else, she applies for jobs at bookshops and finally lands one at an independent shop that specialises in Native American literature. During the course of her readjustment in the world outside prison, she meets Pollux — the tribal police officer who arrested her — again and ends up marrying him.

Tookie and Pollux live a simple, quiet life together and, to Tookie, it seems heavenly compared to what she had known before. However, permanent bliss is not on the cards and things take a turn for the drastic when a frequent customer of the bookshop suddenly dies and Tookie becomes convinced she is being haunted by the deceased bibliophile.

Celebrated Native American author Louise Erdrich’s latest novel is a book about books, about history read, written and created in that very moment

Thus goes the basic premise of The Sentence, the latest novel by multiple award-winning Native American writer Louise Erdrich. It might possibly be the most relevant, most personal and timely book she has ever written, not just because it is set in a bookshop that is almost exactly like the real-life Birchbark Books Erdrich herself owns, down to the rescued confession booth and the canoe hanging from the ceiling, but also because it so accurately captures the strangeness, loneliness and violence of 2020.

This particular customer, Flora, was — in life and now in death — a very “persistent wannabe.” She was always convinced of being a descendant of a native woman but, rather than simply appropriating Native American culture — therefore being easier to dislike for that reason — she was very much a part of Minneapolis’s local Native community.

She fostered Native American children, helped raise funds for important causes and, though they have an odd, somewhat contentious relationship, Tookie sees Flora more as an ally rather than a “stalker of all things indigenous.”

Flora’s need to consume Native culture is so great, her desperation for it to be a part of her so strong, that even after death she keeps trying to take more than she should. “I shouldn’t be surprised that she won’t leave us alone even now,” says Tookie. “That’s entitlement for you.”

Tookie is a little harsh towards Flora, yet isn’t able to let her spirit go. Erdrich plays the long game with their dynamic and it is with a steady, slow reveal that we finally find out why and how the two women’s lives are intertwined. It is a bittersweet moment and worth the wait.

The second half of the book deals with the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the lockdowns that followed and the murder of George Floyd, an African American resident of Minneapolis, at the hands of a white police officer.

All of this is, of course, still very fresh in everyone’s mind. Clearly so in Erdrich’s mind, too. As a writer, she is processing, relaying, storying history as it happens. There is an obvious sentiment running through this part of the narrative, a hope for the better, because who didn’t wish for a major shift in the status quo of society during the time of endless lockdowns?

The Sentence is a book about books, about stories, about history read, written and created in that very moment. Whether it’s the colonisation of the Americas, the acts of violence against black people with whom Tookie’s Native community connects deeply or the pandemic, the novel is ostensibly about how we have told, and will tell, these stories.

How do we forgive those who have sinned against us and ours? Be that recent or not. How do we forgive ourselves for sins we ourselves have committed, or sins our ancestors have committed? Forgiving, of course, is not forgetting.

This book is very much about ghosts, about hauntings and being haunted: haunted by your own ancestral histories; by your personal, more immediate past; by the people you once knew, or those you didn’t know personally, but whose deaths represented some terrible shift for you. It is a book about being haunted by an event, violence, a pandemic.

Among the many awards Erdrich has won are the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the National Book Award for Fiction and the Library of Congress Prize for American Fiction. She is a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians — a tribal nation in the upper American Midwest, where much of her writing is set and most of her characters are from.

Tookie, like many of Erdrich’s characters, is a difficult, complicated and incredibly appealing protagonist. Like so many people we may know, Tookie tries constantly to shed her skin, the one that grew because of grief and trauma and loss.

She is haunted, just as the bookstore where she works is haunted. She is haunted by Flora, by loss, by words and stories. But, as the world changes dramatically around her, this becomes a sort of collective haunting, something that Erdrich seems to suggest will remain with us for a long, long time.

The reviewer is a book critic, editor of The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories and hosts the interview podcast Midnight in Karachi at Tor.com

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, February 12th, 2023

Opinion

Editorial

Price bombs
Updated 18 Jun, 2024

Price bombs

It just wants to take the easy route and enjoy the ride for however long it is in power.
Palestine’s plight
Updated 17 Jun, 2024

Palestine’s plight

While the faithful across the world are celebrating with their families, thousands of Palestinian children have either been orphaned, or themselves been killed by the Israeli aggressors.
Profiting off denied visas
17 Jun, 2024

Profiting off denied visas

IT is no secret that visa applications to the UK and Schengen countries come at a high cost. But recent published...
After the deluge
Updated 16 Jun, 2024

After the deluge

There was a lack of mental fortitude in the loss against India while against US, the team lost all control and displayed a lack of cohesion and synergy.
Fugue state
16 Jun, 2024

Fugue state

WITH its founder in jail these days, it seems nearly impossible to figure out what the PTI actually wants. On one...
Sindh budget
16 Jun, 2024

Sindh budget

SINDH’S Rs3.06tr budget for the upcoming financial year is a combination of populist interventions, attempts to...