The Sentence

Image of The Sentence
Release Date: 
November 9, 2021
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The Sentence is a love letter to the written word, to books, and to those who sell them.”

Not many writers could take on the pandemic, the George Floyd protests, ghosts, and the life-sustaining power of books in one go and leave the reader in a better place (and wanting more). Then again, not many writers are Louise Erdrich.

Her newest novel, The Sentence, is the story of a bookstore—in particular, one employee—who is being haunted by the ghost of perhaps its most annoying customer. The employee is Tookie, a formerly incarcerated woman of Potawatomi descent who kept her sanity during her prison sentence through books, especially those sent to her by a former teacher, Jackie. And yes, there’s that word “sentence” again. It takes on dual meanings in the course of the book. So does the word “haunted.”

The novel primarily takes place in a Minneapolis bookstore called Birchbark Books that specializes in indigenous writers and features a canoe on the ceiling and a repurposed confessional (now labeled “the Forgiveness Booth”). The fictional store bears a striking resemblance to the real-life Birchbark Books, the Minneapolis bookstore owned by Erdrich. The author herself makes a cameo appearance when Tookie visits the store to talk her way into a job: “The owner was sitting in a narrow back office with high windows that let through scarves of mellow light. Louise was wearing vintage oval eyeglasses and had piled her hair in a beaded clip. I knew her only from early author photos. Age had broadened her face and nose, plumped up her cheeks, grayed her hair, and given her a general air of tolerance.”

Not only does Erdrich place the actual store at the center of the narrative, the story begins on November 2, 2019—All Souls Day—and ends on November 2, 2020, taking the reader through both the first months of the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and resulting protests. Erdrich is the rare writer who can straddle the line between the real world and the spiritual seemingly effortlessly. Take, for example, this passage describing Tookie’s experience at a George Floyd protest:

“The women grasped my hands. From their palms into my palms there poured a sorrow beyond reckoning and I struggled briefly to let go. But they held on and so I was pulled into the circle. An elder announced that the jingle dress dance was meant to heal people and whoever needed healing could come forward. People moved in from every direction. They held one another up. It was beastly out there. My head was ringing and I was afraid I would fall to my knees. Suffering opened around me. Another woman screamed for her son, yet another for her daughter. Her sisters held her up. I realized that the women whose sons had been beaten, merely beaten and left alive, were weeping with gratitude. How’s that. There was the rattling music of jingles, the drum, the boiling sun. It went on and on. I stood behind Hetta as she danced in place. What flowed over me was not easy to feel and I resisted, but then a ripple of energy caught me up and spread, became wider, powerful, deep, musical, whole, universal: it was the drum. My hip pained me on the side where I came down hardest. I kept dancing. I saw spots and lights, nearly fainted, but still I danced, on and on. Wounded, small, measureless, everywhere. We were human there, together.”

The Sentence is a love letter to the written word, to books, and to those who sell them. It’s also a chronicle of a tumultuous year. It’s a ghost story. It’s the story of how racism haunts America. It is all these things wrapped in a novel that is cluttered in the way a great bookstore is cluttered with treasures and little gems hidden behind every page.