Sunday Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

I read this book because a friend strongly recommended it on Facebook, and while I’m not sorry I did, I didn’t love it as much as she did nor as much as I hoped I would.

The main character is Tookie, an Ojibwe woman with a criminal past. She is convinced by a woman she loves to commit one crime, only to learn afterward that she has been set up to be guilty of an entirely different offense. The judge hands her an extremely harsh sentence, but after several years, her lawyer manages to get it reduced and Tookie is released. Her time in prison turned Tookie into a voracious reader, so she applies for a job at Louise Erdrich’s independent store Birchbark Books. This was the first thing that made it hard for me to connect to the story. To have Louise Erdrich write about herself as a minor character in her own novel felt too meta to me, and I didn’t enjoy the archness of it.

Tookie herself is a complex character, scarred but with the potential for warmth and growth. She turns out to be a great bookseller. Because of the wide and eclectic reading experience she gained in prison and has continued on the outside, she is often able to help customers find books they will love. Her most annoying regular customer is a woman named Flora, who does a great many charitable deeds but also insists without any concrete evidence that she too has Native ancestry. Flora dies on All Souls Day, 2019, but she refuses to rest in peace. Instead, she haunts the bookstore by returning every day at her normal time and moving to all her favorite spots within the building. In particular, Flora is drawn to Tookie, and one of the essential questions of the novel is why.

As the weeks pass, Flora persists and Tookie becomes more and more desperate to figure out how to persuade her to leave. The year draws to a close, and as it does, we as readers know something the characters do not: COVID-19 is coming, and their lives will be forever changed. Not only COVID, but this is Minneapolis, so the murder of George Floyd and the subsequent unrest will become part of the storyline too.

And here is where I experienced my other big disconnect from the story. I expected these two catastrophes to stir me deeply, but they did not. I don’t know if the problem is that I’m still too numb (I lost a dearly loved brother to COVID) or if Louise Erdrich didn’t have enough distance from the events to be able to write about them with power and insight. Either is possible—or both in tandem.

All I know is that the book did not move me in the way I’d hoped. Reactions to fiction are subjective—as an author myself, I know that well—so I don’t offer this as a definitive response to The Sentence. If the premise of the book intrigues you, I recommend that you give it a try and decide for yourself.

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Filed under Book Reviews, contemporary fiction, fiction

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