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The Sentence

Review

The Sentence

On one of my visits to Minnesota to see my parents, I made a point of stopping by Birchbark Books, the bookstore owned by novelist Louise Erdrich, whose work I have admired for decades. Being able to imagine that space --- which is at the heart of her new novel, THE SENTENCE --- made reading the book that much more vivid for me.

Erdrich herself appears as a (minor) character here, but her protagonist and narrator is Tookie, one of the booksellers at Birchbark Books. Tookie has taken something of an unconventional path to working at a bookstore. When we first meet her, she’s basically been tricked into committing a felony that results in a 60-year sentence for drug trafficking.

"[A]t its heart, the book (as the title suggests) is a testament to the power of big stories and tiny words to transform lives and alter perspectives."

After spending time in prison, Tookie struggles with being able to trust anyone, least of all Pollux, the tribal police officer who first arrested her and later, convinced of her innocence, helped advocate successfully for her early release. The two fall in love and marry, and Tookie eventually settles into a cautious sort of domesticity and a small sense of community, centered on her work at the bookstore. There she establishes a familial rapport with the multigenerational staff, as well as with their customers, even the annoying or demanding ones (Tookie nicknames one of them “Dissatisfied” based on his rejection of her hand-selling suggestions, and he in turn dubs her “Alphabet Soup” because she’s read everything).

But when Flora, one of their most loyal yet divisive customers, dies on All Souls’ Day 2019, Tookie becomes convinced that Flora’s spirit is still haunting the store. A white woman who was generous to a fault, Flora always grated somewhat on the store’s Indigenous employees, convinced as she was that, somewhere in her family tree, she had her own Native American heritage. She died while reading a book, and Tookie --- no stranger to the power of words --- is sure that some sentence in that volume was responsible for her death.

Meanwhile, amid Tookie’s professional haunting and some interpersonal drama at home, the world outside is quickly falling apart. COVID-19 shuts down the store to customers, leaving Tookie alone with Flora’s ghost. And only a couple of months later, George Floyd’s murder rouses Minneapolis to an overdue reckoning with race and policing. This hits particularly close to the bone for Tookie, whose own history, combined with what’s happening in the city, puts her increasingly at odds with Pollux’s former profession and his refusal to disavow the actions of his fellow law enforcement officers.

Despite the novel’s grappling with heavy topics like pandemics, protests and politics, THE SENTENCE --- particularly Tookie’s singular narrative voice --- is at times sneakily funny. But it’s also thoughtful and truly insightful, as Tookie and other characters contend with cultural appropriation, personal and cultural histories, and the parallel stories of Black and Indigenous people’s brutalization at the hands of the police. And, at its heart, the book (as the title suggests) is a testament to the power of big stories and tiny words to transform lives and alter perspectives.

Reviewed by Norah Piehl on November 12, 2021

The Sentence
by Louise Erdrich

  • Publication Date: November 9, 2021
  • Genres: Fiction, Women's Fiction
  • Hardcover: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 006267112X
  • ISBN-13: 9780062671127