Louise Erdrich’s ‘The Sentence’ Considers the (Literally) Haunting Power of Books

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  • Nov. 2, 2021, 11:23 a.m. ET

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Who among america hasn’t, successful immoderate sense, stolen a corpse and accidentally trafficked ace cocaine crossed authorities lines? That is simply a question you volition ponder portion speechmaking Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence,” a bewitching caller that begins with a transgression that would look to defy “relatability” but becomes a applicable metaphor for immoderate motivation felonies lurk unresolved successful your blameworthy heart.

Tookie is the transgression successful question. She is “an disfigured woman,” an Ojibwe pistillate and a pistillate who is indicted aft bundling a dormant antheral successful a tarp and delivering the body, to which ace is covertly duct-taped, successful a refrigerated motortruck to 1 of her friends. Tookie’s reasons for doing truthful are anserine but not evil — a defence that has not, historically speaking, held up successful courts of law. She gets 60 years.

After a decade, the condemnation is commuted and Tookie gets a occupation astatine a Minneapolis bookstore that specializes successful Native culture. (She’s hired connected the spot of her intimidating presence: achromatic eyeliner, achromatic stompers, chemoreceptor ring, eyebrow cuff. “Who would situation not bargain a publication from me?” she asks, some rhetorically and correctly.) Four years aft Tookie takes the job, the bookstore’s astir annoying customer, Flora, dies. Five days aft that, Flora’s shade wanders into the store and commences tormenting Tookie.

As a surviving presence, Flora’s utmost annoyingness stemmed from her obsession with each things Indigenous, arsenic good arsenic her assertion that she was “an Indian successful a erstwhile life.” (She seems to beryllium afloat white.) When that enactment fails to person immoderate of the bookstore employees, Flora unearths a photograph of a great-grandmother whom she presumes to beryllium Indigenous based connected the grounds that the pistillate wears a grim look and a shawl successful her portrait. “The pistillate successful the representation looked Indianesque, oregon she mightiness person conscionable been successful a atrocious mood,” Tookie concludes with diagnostic wryness (Erdrich is simply a terrific summoner of vexed and charismatic heroines, and Tookie is nary exception).

The circumstances of Flora’s decease are peculiar: She dies astatine 5 a.m. for seemingly nary reason, with a publication splayed unfastened beside her. The publication — an antique diary with handprinted endpapers and spidery penning successful gray-blue ink — takes connected the prime of a execution limb erstwhile Flora’s foster girl thrusts it into Tookie’s hands 1 day, noting the conception wherever her parent near disconnected reading.


Credit...Jenn Ackerman for The New York Times

When Tookie settles down to decipher the book, she finds a 19th-century captivity narrative, though not of the white-woman-kidnapped-by-Indians variety. It appears to beryllium the opposite: a Native pistillate abducted by whites. Interesting, Tookie thinks. But she’s excessively frightened to proceed reading. What if the lethal condemnation that took retired Flora comes for Tookie, too? In recourse, she finds a tin of lighter fluid and attempts to pain the publication connected an outdoor hibachi grill, wherever it resists destruction. She takes a hatchet to the book, with the aforesaid result. Finally, she shovels a spread and buries the cursed substance successful her backyard, past goes wrong to thaw a artifact of crockery and bash crunches. But the entity volition not vanish, and neither volition Flora. What archetypal seems similar an aimless haunting turns retired to beryllium a deadly close supernatural missile-strike. Flora wants something, and lone erstwhile Tookie decodes what it is tin she exorcise the woman’s malevolent presence.

Amid each this, the pandemic arrives. Spring dribbles in. Milkweed rises from the earth. Pine trees propulsion distant tender caller bundles. George Floyd is killed by constabulary adjacent the Cup Foods wherever Tookie’s hubby stops to bargain a happening oregon 2 connected his mode home. Protests erupt. The musky chalk odor of teardrop state clouds the air. The bookstore is slammed: “Everyone who wasn’t retired connected the streets wanted to work astir wherefore everyone other was retired connected the streets.” Time dissolves. One conception of the publication is fixed the dateline of “May 34.” Threaded done the chronological crippled are dreams, memories, hauntings and different types of temporal mayhem.

As its rubric suggests, “The Sentence” is an incredibly bookish book. The layers of bookishness are dizzying: from the micro (one employee’s sanction is Pen) to the macro (the cardinal mystery: Was Flora killed by a book?). This is simply a caller obsessed with the operations of moving an autarkic bookstore: dealing with publishers, playing the Tetris crippled that is support space, packaging message orders. Erdrich owns an autarkic bookstore called Birchbark Books successful Minneapolis, which shares immoderate similarities with the fictional store — including a proprietor named Louise and a confessional booth. On the (real) bookstore’s website, a enactment explains that the confessional was rescued from a erstwhile beingness arsenic a dependable booth successful a bar, and that “Louise is presently collaging the interior with images of her sins.”

“The Sentence” is injected with literate criticism, and features an appendix containing the favourite books of its main character. That appendix itself is divided into themed sub-lists, and crossed those sub-lists are aggregate books that are, themselves, astir books. The caller starts and ends with Tookie consulting a dictionary. It is books each the mode down.

It’s besides Erdrich each the mode down. In a insubstantial published 30 years ago, the student Catherine Rainwater observed that Erdrich’s books are filled with “extreme cases of codification conflict.” These see the rifts betwixt concern and ceremonial time; Christian theology and shamanic religion; the atomic household and tribal kinship structures. “The Sentence” finds its protagonist squeezed into a abstraction similar that betwixt the unsmooth and brushed sides of a Velcro closure. Tookie can’t quadrate her husband’s affiliations — he’s a erstwhile tribal policeman — with her ain experiences of state-inflicted violence; nor tin she reconcile her consciousness of carnal spot with her intelligence permeability.

Erdrich, who won the Pulitzer Prize for her 2020 caller “The Night Watchman,” erstwhile referred to books arsenic “a perfectly evolved portion of technology,” similar bread. Her newest is strange, enchanting and funny: a enactment astir motherhood, doom, regret and the magic — dark, benevolent and each shadiness successful betwixt — of words connected paper.

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