Takeaway: "The Sentence" by Louise Erdrich
I finished “The Sentence” just a few days ago. It was such a wonderful novel–probably my favorite book of the year. (Particularly because though I don’t love fiction, Louise Erdrich ties in current issues, all dressed in magical realism.)
I found myself leaving for work early just to spend extra time sitting at my desk or in my car to read more. I wanted to know about Tookie’s life and about her past. And of course, about her connection to Flora–the woman who haunted the bookstore. (Don’t worry, I won’t reveal any spoilers.) There’s just so much beauty and pain in this story.
Most of the novel is narrated by Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who spends the beginning of the story in prison for moving a dead body across state lines. During this time, she takes part in one of the few available pleasures offered in prison: reading. Her initial sentence, 60 years, is later lowered to 10.
Flash forward and Tookie is married. Her husband, Pollux, is a former tribal police officer who arrested her for the crime. Tookie also now works in a bookstore–one of the few places in Minneapolis that remains open during the pandemic. Bookstore employees are essential workers–filling orders for students and schools.
The pandemic might seem like the only problem in the story, and it's a big one, but there's more. Where she works is haunted by a ghost named Flora–a former customer obsessed with indigenous people.
The reader continues to travel with Tookie through the COVID epidemic as well as the murder of George Floyd–examining issues of racism, indigenous culture, and the criminal justice system. The definition of “sentence” then also adjusts to different shapes and complexities based on what she’s reading, as well as reflections of the past.
All of the characters are haunted by ghosts–some stemming from regret, others from years of oppression and discrimination. This is their story in such times of uncertainty.
First off, I loved this book so much because, to me, it's really about the power of books. How a string of sentences on paper can change your world, for good and for bad.
Though I don’t think Erdrich was necessarily going in this direction, it’s alarming to think how some people might trust everything they read–especially online. While on the opposite spectrum, there’s something so special and sacred about reading work that changes how you feel and think.
Now to my favorite characters (Sorry, but not sorry… there are a lot of them.)
Maybe my favorite character (but they’re all really great.) She’s such a good mother to Hetta, though Hetta is really her niece. I love her spunk, wit, and resilience. She's been through a lot, which is revealed throughout the story.
I really love Pollux, though his character can be complicated because of his previous position and its relation to Tookie. Overall, he comes across as a very tender-hearted person and easily wins people over by making them sandwiches.
Hetta (and Jarvis)
Hetta is a little harder to love (but very lovable) because she’s always mouthing-off to Tookie or Pollux. During the pandemic, she starts living with them. Her newborn baby, Jarvis, also comes into the story during this time. I admire Hetta's insubordinate style--against her elders, but more so, against old ways.
Dissatisfaction/Satisfaction (and his dog)
This is my favorite side character: a customer who is always looking for books but never satisfied with what’s available or hateful to people at the bookstore. I like his relationship with Tookie, which blossoms during the pandemic–also showing, in a sense, how some people seem to change for the better or value personal relationships more in times of crisis.
Tookie’s name for this character changes throughout the story. First, she names the customer “Dissatisfaction” because he’s never satisfied. Then, during the pandemic, when he’s much kinder, she changes his name to “Satisfaction.”
(There are more characters I love, but I won’t talk about them so as not to reveal subplots of the story.)
Some negative online reviews for this book said it was “too preachy.” I guess some readers thought that adding current events and the writer’s political perspective, (which shows through Tookie), “ruined” the story.
I think Erdrich does an excellent job of weaving in current events while not shoving them in your face. She also uses the complexity of the characters’ pasts to examine how things in the present are better, or perhaps, still wrong. But she never throws anything at you. Anything discussed in the book transitions well and makes you think.
One thing I’ll add–I don’t know why you’d read a book like this if you weren’t looking for something a bit more progressive.
“The Sentence” is exquisitely beautiful writing. I think anyone who’s read any of Erdrich’s work would agree that her sentences, though sometimes sad or angry, read like poetry. The way she describes joy and despair. You can feel it.
Below I just wanted to share some of my favorite writing from the book. Enjoy.