The beauty of The Sentence lies in its careful, careful details. Louise Erdrich’s latest novel is delightful for a number of reasons, but I find its main appeal to be the attention she puts into the vibrant characters that populate The Sentence. The novel focuses on Tookie, an Indigenous woman traumatized by seven years of incarceration and her life as she works at a small bookstore, struggling with the ghosts of her past. Ghosts and creatures of Indigenous folklore are also literally and casually sprinkled throughout, and there is also the small matter of a book, also called The Sentence, which haunts Tookie and her friends. The Sentence is many things at once—an intricate look at Tookie’s struggles and those around her, a fantastical tour of all things literature, and a reckoning with current global events.
Tookie is funny and scary. Her narrative style is both matter-of-fact— as with her plain description of body-snatching— and disarmingly charming— like when she confesses her fear of falling out of the Tookie-shaped unit that composes her being. She leers menacingly at the woman who tells a blatantly racist and appropriative tale about her culture and jokingly tells her friend Asema that a dump truck has fallen out of the sky and into her yard, which is why she can no longer speak on the phone. Other characters in The Sentence are also richly developed. Asema and Penstemon, Tookie’s coworkers and friends, are both ambitious, intelligent, and passionate about their Indigenous roots. Pollux, Tookie’s husband, lavishes attention and care upon Potawtomi customs, which frequently appear throughout the story. The sour and rebellious Hetta, Tookie and Pollux’s adopted daughter, undergoes a vivid transformation as she transitions into motherhood and activism. Flora, an annoying customer/ghost who haunts the bookstore, has an adopted daughter who only ever calls her “mom,” with no mention of her past. The bonds that these characters form throughout the story also go beyond conventional expectations.
Blood does not matter nearly as much as the connections that characters form with one another. Furthermore, personal rituals abound in this text, grafting greater significance onto regular holidays and everyday affairs. Tookie pretends she is in Missoula when performing bibliomancy, Penstemon has “interdimensional sex” on Thanksgiving, and Pollux visits a particular forest when thinking of his grandmother. Bigger rituals like Thanksgiving and Christmas are carefully disregarded in favor of more intimate inner meanings, derived from characters’ own understandings of their lives.
Furthermore, by dividing the sections of the book at leisure, Erdrich challenges traditional narrative structure. Chapter numbers, a hard marker of quantifiable, objective time, are absent in the meandering structure of Erdrich’s work. Tookie’s seven years of jail time, for example, are amended to a few pages while one of her shifts is stretched out into an entire section. The titles are descriptive invitations into each chapter and reflect Tookie’s own attitude toward life: ready to challenge dominant power structures such as narrative time and structure. At one point, the novel breaks out of conventional narrative completely, launching into a list of “QUESTIONS FOR TOOKIE” about her heritage, all of which are incredibly condescending and presumably from non-natives filled with misconceptions. Erdrich adopts this technique frequently, breaking up the story into little inlets of detail.
The Sentence is also a book about a journal that is titled The Sentence. It is a play on words, reflecting both the book Tookie discovers and her time spent in jail. In this way, we can see how self-aware Erdrich is of the language she uses—every detail serves a purpose, and so do the details she omits. Tookie’s book, the fictive version of The Sentence, is an Indian captivity narrative that is practically illegible. The book itself is in many ways scarier than the ghost that hangs around Tookie’s bookstore. Her first attempt to read is dissociatively terrifying; here Erdrich excels with a wealth of highly descriptive language.
The Sentence does not immediately reveal itself as a scary story, though a dead body does appear in its opening pages. Tookie’s fear is slow and gradual, ebbing and flowing with her awareness of these spooky events. When she runs for the lightswitch inside the darkened bookstore and encounters a hand that has beaten her to it, her terror is palpable. Erdrich takes the concept of “haunting” and runs with it, applying it to many different parts of the novel. There is, of course, the classic bookstore haunting that plagues Tookie throughout, but many of the characters are haunted by their own pasts in both a personal and historical sense. Asema makes the dark and truthful observation that although white people are frequently convinced that they are being haunted by Indigenous ghosts, it is in fact the other way around: Indigenous people are haunted by settlers and their descendents, their past and present devoured by the culture that dominates around them. Tookie often comments on the capacity of the white world to destroy Indigenous ancestry, or she sometimes makes more subtle comments, like when she calls Thanksgiving “thankstaking.”
The novel does not shy away from discussing difficult issues such as this one. Injustices against Black and Indigenous people are frequently mentioned, and Erdrich delves into pandemic politics, the killing of George Floyd, and police brutality. I find it commendable that Erdrich addresses these issues and grapples with them through her characters, who protest injustice and quarantine as many people have in the past year. Her descriptions of quarantine walks, social distancing, and reactions of shock to the daily headlines are typical moments that many are sure to have experienced. These events are real and relatable, inextricably linking the personal and universal. But this universality can also be a drawback. At times it feels as though Erdrich is ticking off boxes as she winds her way through a list of current events while also trying to grapple with the novel’s plot. It is important for fiction to grapple with major world events, but in a work which ambitiously attempts to encompass much of the past two years and develop a complex plot line involving many characters, some parts are left feeling rather unfinished.
It was refreshing and worry-inducing to read about this collective human experience: refreshing, because relatively little fiction has begun to write about this, and worry-inducing because the experience is very much ongoing. Pandemic politics and racial injustice continue to plague us and will do so for a long time. The Sentence, then, is not a charming piece of fiction with which you can escape the woes of the world. It asks you, with some intensity, to scrutinize current events through a literary lens. At times this can be confusing, for the news is hard enough to interpret without an extra layer of mediation.
There are many reasons to read The Sentence. Its broad scope can be an enticement or a drawback, depending on what you are looking for; in any case, there is something for everyone. Erdrich’s writing style is beautiful and entertaining, and she infuses her writing with such detail that it is impossible not to be carried away by her work of magical realism. Covid-19, Trump, George Floyd, and police brutality cohabitate with ghosts, spirits, and one curious creature called a rugaroo; it is a balancing act that does not always find its footing. But Erdrich also writes of readers, writers, artists, activists, mothers, children—fills her pages with dynamic, colourful people united by the power of her words and their own. The most important sentence of The Sentence, “The door is open. Go!” speaks to the limitless possibilities of these words: for activism, for friendships, for relationships, and for words greater than the sum of their parts.