This book was so much more than I expected. I went into it knowing that it was set in a bookstore, that the bookstore was haunted by their most annoying customer, and that part of it was set during lockdown in 2020. All of that is present in The Sentence but Louise Erdrich takes it so much deeper and while the book definitely has humour, it also has so much warmth and punch and decisiveness. It delves into issues of race, of ownership, of colonialism. It addresses the prison system, the police force, racial injustice, family dynamics, the place of books in modern society. And it does it all very well.
I’ve spent a large portion of my adult life working in bookstores, both with used and new books. Despite this (or maybe because of it) I don’t generally enjoy books set in bookstores or about bookstores. I keep reading them because people keep telling me about them. Though I’ve never read Erdrich’s work before I learned that she actually owns a bookstore and so that was a point in her favour. A real bookstore worker writing a book about the store’s most annoying customer? That had potential. (The store is, in fact, a fictional version of Erdrich’s own store, complete with a fictional version of Louise herself.)
Our main character and narrator is Tookie, an Indigenous woman who, when she is unexpectedly released from prison, gets a job working at a small, local bookstore in Minnesota. She finds herself living a sort of second life, one she never expected. The book begins in November 2019. One of Tookie’s least favourite customers, Flora, has died. But she hasn’t left the store. Tookie can hear her browsing the shelves, wandering around the shop. Flora’s daughter gifts Tookie with the book that Flora was reading when she died, an unusual tome called “The Sentence”, and an item that Tookie comes to believe contains a sentence that killed Flora.
This is handled with humour and pathos. Tookie is a unique character, likeable and relatable. She’s eccentric but realistic; she has a life and friendships that are easy to sink into. Erdrich excels at describing the physical world around Tookie in a way that made me want to fall into her life, eat a meal with her. She’s a woman with a troubled childhood and life behind her, who is holding on tight to the life she now has been able to build.
March 2020 hits and the world around Tookie changes. Covid-Lit is probably a burgeoning genre but this is one that struck home for me in new ways. Working at an independent bookstore through the spring of 2020 was a unique experience and one that Erdrich captures well. The pivot to online sales, the adventures of book deliveries, the strange loneliness of hanging out alone in a once busy store. The way you miss your regulars, even the ones whose names you don’t know but have dubbed in your mind based off of their reading preferences. I lived that life too and Erdrich nails the experience.
Balancing all of this through the character of Tookie, Erdrich then takes it even further, as the city is rocked by the murder of George Floyd. Tookie and her co-workers and friends – all Indigenous women – react in a variety of ways to this but there is a deep set pain that feels so authentic on the page. It’s a fantastic portrayal of intersectional dynamics in racial tensions, on both a grand scale and a domestic one. Tookie is married to an Indigenous man who is also a former cop and the tension grows between them as they both react to the actions of the city’s police officers.
The story ends one year from Flora’s death, in November 2020. While I didn’t find the ending wholly satisfactory – I got the sense that Erdrich might have written it before November 2020 actually occurred – it worked on the many levels that she had created throughout the novel. We get closure for Flora and, as much as possible, for Tookie. Overall, I can highly recommend The Sentence.