The unending struggle of families to survive in a changing world is the connective tissue that runs across Louise Erdrich’s novels. Erdich, whose Native American lineage is generative to her fiction and poetry, weaves her novels around love, violence, revenge and redemption.
Past and present, love and obsession, white and indigenous often appear to be on a collision course. Erdrich’s 18th novel, The Sentence, too centres on a family living through challenging times, amid the looming spectre of a ghost, and a virus. In a larger sense, it also reinforces the significance of books in our lives. Woven into the narrative are reading lists from its bookseller protagonist. In its universe, books are “matters of life and death, and readers reach through unknowable realms to maintain some connection to the written word”. It also includes a seven-page reading recommendation at the end—unusual in a novel.
In addition to the title that seems to be a play on both the meanings of the word—linguistic expression and incarceration—the epigraph from Korean-American poet Sun Yung Shin’s experimental collection, Unbearable Splendour, emphasises the centrality of the world of letters to the plot: “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” The novel, set in Minneapolis in the US, spans a tumultuous year in which the pandemic upends lives, sweeping away old certainties and exposing the hollowness of the healthcare system. It is bookended by All Souls Day, an occasion to honour the dead among Roman Catholics, a structure Erdrich employs skilfully to explore connections between the living and the dead.
The protagonist, who is also the narrator, is a Native American woman named Tookie, who belongs to the Ojibwe tribe and runs a book store. Erdrich belongs to the same tribe, often referred to as Chippewa. She runs an indie book store in Minneapolis, Birchbark Books & Native Arts, and has a cameo in the novel as herself.
Erdrich turned to writing after she won a dictionary in an essay-writing competition in 1971. With pictures of William Faulkner, Octavia Butler and Jean Rhys tucked in its pages, she would carry the heavy, cloth-bound dictionary to school and college, through her marriage and even when she was raising her adopted daughters. During difficult times (her writer-husband, Michael Dorris, died by suicide two years after they separated in 1995), the dictionary offered her comfort. Erdrich consulted that dictionary for this novel too. Tookie begins her story by telling us she received a dictionary in prison after she was sentenced to 60-odd years for a strange crime she got embroiled in owing to her “deranged dear” crush, Danae, when she was young and wayward. After the latter’s boyfriend died in the arms of his ex, Tookie transported his body across state lines and was arrested by a policeman, Pollux.
In prison, Tookie learnt the skill of reading with “murderous attention” at the prison libraries; she read everything that came herway. She was released in 10 years because of thepersistentefforts of her tribaldefence lawyer, Ted Johnson, to get her sentence commuted. Tookie found a job as a salesperson at a book store, married Pollux and settled for “regular” life. In comparison to many women in her tribe, she had come to have it all.
For an indigenous woman like her, in a country with a history of racial fault lines, what could such a life be except a blessing!
The placidity of her days ends, however, when Tookie starts experiencing the “creepiness of aural hallucinations”—a murmur here, a rustle there—when her most annoying but regular customer, Flora, keeps visiting the book store even after her death. A white woman claimingNative heritage, and a devoted reader, she had died reading a mysterious book of indigenous history. Flora’s ghost spends time in her favourite fiction section. Tookie, though unhappy at the presence of a spirit browsing books every day, goes about her business as the visitations continue.
Erdrich excels at exploring the complexities of ancestry and identity, and blending the real with the mystical. When the pandemic strikes, Tookie’s stepdaughter, Hetta, and her son, Jarvis, born out of wedlock, are stuck at her house. Tookie shares a bittersweet relationship with Hetta but triesto be motherly. However, the ruptures show up at odd moments.
The novel’s pace slackens at this point, perhaps to reflect life under lockdown. In a world already plagued by a virus, the pathogen of racism rears its head when a black man, George Floyd, is killed by a white policeman inMinneapolis, igniting historicprotests across America. Erdrich uses real incidents—the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter campaign—to underscore that fiction can scarcely match the strangeness of the life of a Native or a black American.
In her 2021 novel, The Night Watchman, which won the Pulitzer Prize, Erdrich dipped into the life of her grandfather, who was among those who resisted the federal government’s attempts to disband Native American tribes and get their lands sold in the 1950s. Though they share a common thematic concern, both novels work differently.
While the earlier novel has a kaleidoscopic canvas and multiple narrative voices, The Sentence, shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction 2022, unfolds in a more intimate setting and is largely narrated by Tookie. Both, however, have an emotional heft, which proves that Erdrich essentially remains a novelist of feelings. The tenderest of moments in The Sentence involve Tookie and Pollux; they lend a redemptive quality to a novel that has too many things going, and sometimes leaves you out of breath.
Erdrich’s chronotope prose enchants with its simplicity and elegance. While the blurb on The Sentence describes it as a “wickedly funny ghost story”, I didn’t find it remotely spooky. So, if you are a horror addict, you have been forewarned.
The aim of the novel can be summed up in a sentence: Just as Tookie deals with the ghost of a vengeful white claiming to be a Native American, the US must confront the phantoms of its troubled past.
Shireen Quadri is the editor of The Punch Magazine Anthology Of New Writing: Select Short Stories By Women Writers.