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The Sentence (2021)

de Louise Erdrich

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Tookie is an ex-con, an Ojibwe woman, and a bookseller, and she is being haunted by the ghost of one of her most irritating customers, a white woman named Flora who claimed to be Native American and who Tookie learned after her death, considered Tookie to be her best friend. Taking place in Minneapolis between All Soul's Day 2019 and All Soul's Day 2020, this is also a pandemic novel and a novel that is saturated with the anger and protest after the murder of George Floyd. Tookie is both a hard and easy character to love. Her sense of humor, her love of language and reading, and the playful companionship she shares with her husband, Pollux (a Pottawatomie ex-cop who arrested her a decade before their marriage) are infinitely endearing, but Tookie has a tendency to always get in her own way, to be stubborn and difficult and sensitive and uncommunicative, which makes her both frustrating and fascinating. It also makes her very easy to haunt.

The bookstore where Tookie works and where the ghost of Flora shuffles through aisles and knocks books off of shelves is Birchbark Books, which is also the real independent bookstore that Louise Erdrich owns in Minneapolis. Erdrich even shows up as a character in the book -- mostly distractedly writing from the back room of the store. And books just saturate the novel. Tookie recommends books to customers, talks about books that got her through her prison sentence, and even leaves the reader with multiple lists of recommended books at the end of the novel (including a "Ghost Managing Book List," "Short Perfect Novels," "Indigenous Lives," and "Tookie's Pandemic Reading."

This is a book that is filled with humor and love, but that doesn't shy away from the hard parts of relationships with family, friends, co-workers, and even irritating customers. Nothing is simple here, just like nothing is simple in our own pandemic lives. Reading back through the early days of the pandemic and the anguish after the murder of George Floyd was difficult and powerful, and Erdrich has written a novel that is extremely contemporary, but feels like it will age well with time and not be set aside as just another pandemic novel. Highly recommended. ( )
  kristykay22 | Jan 16, 2022 |
It has been years since I've read anything by Louise Erdrich, and I'm happy to say that this was a much better experience than reading Chris Bohjalian's latest after a long gap. Tookie Pollux is a Native American woman with a history of drug abuse and nonviolent crimes and is married to the cop who arrested her when she ended up in jail. She's out on parole and working at Birchbark Books in Minneapolis. One of her least favorite customers, Flora, a white woman claiming that she is Native American, suddenly dies, but Tookie is convinced that her ghost is still hanging around, trying to find the book that will prove her heritage. (Birchbark is a regular bookstore but also specializes in Native American books; one of Tookie's co-workers is a graduate student doing research in native American studies.) Every morning when she comes to work, rookie finds books pulled from the shelves and thrown to the floor and paper towels scattered about in the washroom, and she can hear the familiar swishing of Flora's clothes as she passes by.

Initially, no one else thinks the store is haunted, but most of her coworkers do believe in spirits (not ghosts). Tookie's husband Pollux is a master of tribal rituals, but burning sage and other strategies have not laid Flora to rest. When she finds the mysterious book that she believes Flora has been searching for--the book she was reading when she died--, Tookie tries another tactic. But things become even more ominous when she actually hears Flora's voice pleading, "Let me in!"

I don't want to reveal more about the plot, but there are a number of twists and turns, and the characters are wonderful. Besides Flora, two other customers that figure into the story, an elderly black mand that Tookie has nicknamed Dissatisfaction (you can probably guess why) and a strange young man who gives her a book he has written, he says, in "the language of my heritage." There are no printed words in the book, just "chicken scratches." We later learn that his name is Laurent, and he figures more prominently in the story than one might at first suspect. Tookie's co-workers, Penstemon, Ameris, Gruen, and Jackie, her husband Pollux and her stepdaughter Hetta are all unique characters in their own way. Erdrich adds contemporary depth to the novel in the second half, in which two major events affect both the characters and the setting: the murder of George Floyd and the spread of COVID-19. It's impossible not to relive those events through the responses and fears of her Minneapolis Native Americans.

The Sentence] is a story of may ghosts, not just Flora's. She is haunted by her relationship with her dead mother, by her absent father, by several destructive love affairs, by the actions that put her into jail. Even though she feels that she was "saved" by books and by the love of Pollux, these ghosts will not rest. And of course, the history of her people haunts not only Tookie but every Native American character in the book.

I really enjoyed this book and will undoubtedly go back to read more by Erdrich that I missed over the last 20 years or so. ( )
2 vota Cariola | Jan 15, 2022 |
I have mentioned before that I find it much easier to ramble on about what I don't like than to explain what I do like about a book. Still I will try.

Erdrich is grappling with a hellish few years and doing it in ways that I love and wholeheartedly endorse. She is doing this first with literature. This whole book is a love letter to storytelling. Erdrich does not just praise books in the general sense (she does that too) but she praises very specific books in beautiful ways. Tookie, the main character, is guided by authors from Marcel Proust to Billy-Ray Belcourt. Tookie is an Ojibwe woman with past addiction issues who spent time in prison and she is getting life lessons from Proust (and Colson Whitehead and Toni Morrison and Penelope Fitzgerald and Claire Lispector and Virginia Woolf and Turgenev and and and.) One of the things that disturbs me in reading reviews here on GR is the number of times people don't like books because they don't like the characters or approve of their choices. That is a Fox News (or CNBC) version of reading, responding only to things which validate your thoughts and opinions and definitions of normal. In fact reading is about expanding your mind, the best reading is the reading that challenges and blows up your assumptions about right and wrong. Erdrich really doubles down on that point, that reading expands us and gives us other ways to see things. If we just read about people we regularly have dinner with then our time would be better spent just having dinner with friends. Reading should never be an echo chamber, and Erdrich makes that clear. The literary refences here are the best kind of easter egg hunt for book geeks, and for me they added to my tbr. Even if you don't read the book (though you should) I recommend you hit harpercolins(dot)com/audio/thesentence for a list of Tookie's favorite books. Tookie starts and ends her journey with us consulting a dictionary (an actual paper one.) Words matter and you cannot really change facts or definitions by making up alternatives.

As mentioned, Erdrich is grappling with painful and difficult things (Trump, Covid, the erasure of indigenous people and appropriation of indigenous culture) but this is still a book filled with hope and love and humor. The relationship between Tookie and her husband is just so lovely and funny and sweet. Tookie's relationship with a child who comes into the story (I won't say how) is filled with wonder and love. Tookie's relationships with her co-workers are significant, interesting and nuanced. For the most part the people in this book treat one another with true kindness, and that alone is a bright spot in a world where kindness seems almost quaint.

An ongoing theme is that we (this is the individual and the collective American we) need to deal with our literal and metaphorical ghosts, in order to thrive and survive. Our regular way of doing things is to ignore and silence ghosts, to drown out their voices in any way we can. It doesn't work. It saps our energy and our decency and our joy; it paralyzes us. The only way to get rid of ghosts to appease them by acknowledging them and opening ourselves up to learning what they are trying to teach us. It is a good message. There are so many examples of this in the book, but one is that Tookie loves her husband absolutely, and he is a good man, but he is also the man who put zip ties around her wrists and sent her to jail after she did something stupid (he was a cop.) Her forgiveness of him parallels a larger need for America to heal after hundreds years of white people suppressing indigenous and black people, and after George Floyd, Sandra Bland, Philando Castile, etc. We need to address history, work through it, and create a new way that acknowledges, but doesn't live, in the past. When Tookie tries not to think about Pollux arresting her, to just move on, it festers. It needs to be remembered in order for anyone to move forward in a productive way. At the end of the book Tookie says "I want to forget this year, but I’m also afraid I won’t remember this year.” That seems as close as I can come to summing up the book.

Here is the easier part - the (relatively minor) issues I had with this read. The book starts with a caper that turns out to be somewhat disastrous. There is a reckoning of sorts with the event that happens near the end of the book, but the initial caper is not mentioned at all in-between. When Tookie begins to grapple with the ghosts nearly 200 pages after the initial event I had to go back and remind myself who these people were that she was suddenly talking about, It made for choppiness. I also hated the whole Laurent storyline. If I was supposed to get a message that language has the meaning we ascribe to it, and if a crazy person creates a language and assigns meaning to it then it is real, then mission accomplished. I got that message. But if that is true, then it gives support to the concept of alternate facts. If one person can decide a word means something, that the word "kyta" means cauliflower for instance, then why can't one person decide that the sky is fuchsia? Erdrich is usually logical, but I don't think she is here. If the message was crazy people can be good partners too, I guess I got that too. I am not sure why either of those things needed to be addressed. The whole storyline made everyone look a bit ridiculous.

A final note, Erdrich's writing is in top form here. Other than the one bit of choppiness I mentioned the storyline is rich and well paced, and at a sentence level it is just plain pithy.

I am a little sad this is not a book club read because it is a book I would very much like to talk about. ( )
  Narshkite | Jan 15, 2022 |
I have heard buzzings about Louise Erdich for years, and after she won the Pulitzer I must admit I sort of relegated her to the 'probably too chewy for me' category in my head. But The Sentence made it onto a bunch of 'Best of 2021' lists so I decided to borrow the ebook and give it a shot.

The protagonist is a Native American ex-convict working in a book store, who ends up being haunted by a customer who has passed. I think the thing I loved the most about this book was the constant conversations about books. There are even lists of titles in places. Anything I had already read on the lists were books that I loved, so I can only assume just about all of the rest are worth my time.

But the timing of the book also hit me. It starts in the Fall of 2019 and barrels right into the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I could identify with this: "The reports kept saying that those who died had underlying health issues. That was probably supposed to reassure some people—the super-healthy, the vibrant, the young. A pandemic is supposed to blow through distinctions and level all before it. This one did the opposite. Some of us instantly became more mortal."

This one is set in Minneapolis, mostly in a bookstore owned by the author who actually shows up a time or two. Very meta! The story also covers the time during the murder of George Floyd. I learned a bit about how fragile the relationship is between Native Americans and the police. "You rarely hear about police killings of Indigenous people, though the numbers are right up there with Black people, because so often it happens on remote reservations, and the police don’t wear cameras."

If you are squeamish at all about any of these things then this book is not for you, but I was entranced, and I will be reading more of her work. ( )
  clamairy | Jan 8, 2022 |
I've probably read about ten books of hers, one of my favorite authors. In this one she is actually a character, owning a bookstore and employing our main character Tookie. Tookie begins the narrative explaining how she got arrested for taking a dead body across state lines, thinking she was helping a grieving friend. Later while serving jail time, she learns that the body was strapped with cocaine and the two woman involved set her up. On the plus side, she wound up marrying Pollux, the arresting officer. The story hinges around the death and eventual haunting of a complaining bookstore customer named Flora. It appears she died reading one particular sentence in a book that Tookie is afraid to read. She buried the book in her back yard fearing that actually reading a certain sentence could kill her. Of course when she tells this to Louise, our doppelgänger author, Louise replies, " I wish I could write a sentence like that. " great line.
Though Flora's body was cremated, finally after some mistaken ashes, she continues to show up at the bookstore, making the same rustling noises that Tookie knew was her presence. Meanwhile the narrative includes the real life current events of the George Floyd killing, subsequent riots and BLK movement, followed by the impact of the corona virus. It's a good story and Tookie is immediately a classic Erdrich character. Her and Pollux's love for each other is nicely outlined and memorable.
Some lines from the Sentence
I am an ugly woman. Not the kind of ugly that guys write or make movies about, where suddenly I have a blast of blinding instructional beauty. I am not about teachable moments. Nor am I beautiful on the inside. I enjoy lying, for instance, and am good at selling people useless things for prices they can’t afford. Of course, now that I am rehabilitated, I only sell words. Collections of words between cardboard covers. Books contain everything worth knowing except what ultimately matters.

Pollux had once been a keen-eyed boxer. His nose was mashed, left eyebrow dented. He had a false tooth. His knuckles were uneven knobs.

Ted Johnson was the most nondescript person ever, sad-sack in baggy Men’s Wearhouse suits, floppy 1980s ties, a half-bald pate sprouting hair just at the ear line, a curly swatch he kept tucking back. He had a round bland face with perfectly opaque green eyes and pinhole pupils cold as drill bits. Unfortunately he was not covering up a preternatural shrewdness.

Nothing makes Penstemon happier than handing a favorite book to someone who wants to read it. I’m the same. I suppose you could say this delights us although ‘delight’ is a word I rarely use. Delight seems insubstantial; happiness feels more grounded; ecstasy is what I shoot for; satisfaction is hardest to attain.

In the whispery dark, I wondered about Asema’s people, the Dakota on her father’s side. They had fled from here in 1862, when the state of Minnesota offered volunteer scouts twenty-five-dollar bounties for Indian scalps.

Like every state in our country, Minnesota began with blood dispossession and enslavement.

Thankgiving, I mean thankstaking, week remained warm.

However, I was driven to imagine that this book contained a sentence that changed according to the reader’s ability to decipher it and could somehow kill.

‘All that is from the earth, right? We’ve drawn life from below for too long,’ he said. ‘You’re going to start talking about fossil fuels any minute.’ ‘Sucking out oil and digging up minerals.’ ‘Here we go.’ ‘Things will improve when we start living on the top of the earth, on wind and light.’

All over the world—in Greek villages, in the American Southwest, among the Tuareg—blueness repels evil. Blue glass bottles on windowsills keep devils out, and so on. Thus the front door, painted spirit blue, and the vibrant blue canopies above the windows.
What I’m trying to say is that a certain sentence of the book—a written sentence, a very powerful sentence—killed Flora.’ Louise was silent. After a few moments she spoke. ‘I wish I could write a sentence like that.’

When a baby falls asleep in your arms you are absolved. The purest creature alive has chosen you. There’s nothing else.

This book brought me back to the old days. I grew up in Rondo and that was a warm neighborhood, full of kindness, pie, elderly folks, kids, craziness, and sorrow.

I put my hand on my chest and closed my eyes. I have a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And I have a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered. The glass heart belongs to Pollux. There was a ping. To my surprise, it had developed a minute crack, nearly invisible. But it was there, and it hurt.

We may be a striver city of blue progressives in a sea of red, but we are also a city of historically sequestered neighborhoods and old hatreds that die hard or leave a residue that is invisible to the well and wealthy, but chokingly present to the ill and the exploited. Nothing good would come of it, or so I thought.

Pollux’s grandma had once told him dogs are so close with people that sometimes, when death shows up, the dog will step in and take the hit. Meaning, the dog would go off with death, taking their person’s place. I was pretty sure that Gary had done this for go off with death, taking their person’s place. I was pretty sure that Gary had done this for Roland and then visited the store to let me know.

Who but an NDN would know that some days truth is a ghost who shouts in the voice of no one in particular and other days it is a secret nostalgia poured into the coffee cups of the living?

Jarvis awakened. We regarded each other in the calm light. He was on the verge of his first steps. Walking is a feat of controlled falling. Like life, I guess. ( )
  novelcommentary | Jan 8, 2022 |
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From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence. - Sun Yung Shin, Unbearable Splendor
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To everyone who has worked at Birchbark Books, to our customers, and to our ghosts.
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