Book Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich

The Sentence – Louise Erdrich (Harper, 2021)

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.

17 thoughts on “Book Review: The Sentence by Louise Erdrich”

  1. Erdrich seems to be haunting my blog feed at the moment! I started one of her books years ago but stopped almost immediately when it looked like something extremely bleak was going to happen. I like the idea of this, though – but I’m not quite sure I’m ready to read covid books yet.

    1. This was the first I’ve read from her. It’s heavy at times but I wouldn’t say too bleak. Not being ready to read Covid books is fair though. I inadvertently found myself reading three books at once, all of which had to do with pandemics and had to drop one.

    2. Lou, I’m wondering when all the hospital/medical covid novels are going to be published. I know people keep writing from the average person’s perspective, but it seems that there would be an audience for covid medical thrillers. I mean, I’m not sure I would want to read that, but I do see a market for it. Perhaps James Patterson will come around.

    3. I agree that this is very much a market that will exist before we know it. I would guess that anybody who has experience in the medical field during covid is not particularly interested in writing a book about it but maybe if James Patterson comes along to help.

    4. When I worked at the library during COVID before vaccines, etc. I was surprised to see how many nonfiction books about COVID were coming out. How do they even know what they’re talking about? I imagine there was a lot of speculation and/or citing sources from the pandemic, which would also demonstrate conjecture because we had no idea what was going to happen.

    5. I agree – how could an accurate book about the pandemic possibly be written in 2020? Mostly the ones I’ve seen at the bookstore are more conspiracy-based (Bill Gates is micro-chipping us etc. We don’t stock them but sometimes people do order them in.)

  2. I’ve only read one of her books, LaRose, and it didn’t totally work for me though there were interesting aspects, mainly to do with the historical treatment of Native Americans. This one sounds rather more enjoyable, despite her dealing with some tough subjects. If I have to haunt anywhere I’d quite like it to be a bookshop!

    1. She handles some tough topics in a light manner (without making light of them) and I appreciated that. I would probably want to haunt a bookstore or library too so I can sympathize with our ghost here.

  3. Having never worked in a bookshop I can’t resist books set in them, even though I worked in Retail for long enough to know that regardless of what you are selling, there are some annoying customers mixed in with all the lovely ones. Not sure that I’m ready for Covid-lit either, but no doubt it will become a thing.

  4. Karissa, I have wanted to read Erdrich since I first learned about her in 2010, and yet I’ve never known where to dip my toe in. This sounds like a great place to begin, so thank you for your review!

    1. I haven’t read her before so this worked as a good place to start for me. Hope it’s the same for you and glad it helped!

  5. Oh man this sounds like such a good book. People keep telling me to read Louise Erdrich, I know I would love her, but i just haven’t gotten around to it yet. That’s funny that people keep telling you to read books set in bookstores even though you work in one! I can see why you wouldn’t like to read them, they probably idealize that setting more than it deserves 🙂

    1. This is very much a book lovers book too, with lots of references to current books and lists of books to read. I think you’d like it!

  6. […] The Sentence, by Louise Erdrich, is one that I’ve already reviewed more thoroughly and the only one of these three that features the real-life pandemic that we have all been living through. Beginning on November 1st, 2019 and going through an entire year to November 1st, 2020, it captures much of the unique circumstances of life throughout that year. Including the growing racial tensions that developed after George Floyd’s murder in 2020. Erdrich details things like social distancing, mask-wearing, and business shutting down. There is the uncertainty of those early weeks, particularly before vaccines were developed and available, but there is also a familiarity because we have lived through this experience and if we are reading this book, we have somehow made it this far to 2022. […]

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