The Sentence: A Pulitzer Prize winning novelist’s haunting story set in a pandemic year

Sravanthi Challapalli | Updated on: Jun 01, 2022

Louise Erdrich’s ghostly tale is a paean to books, to how they can be a coping mechanism in turbulent times and the source of much restorative power

The Sentence by Louise Erdrich begins with its protagonist Tookie’s narration of a heist. For the sake of love – and some money –she steals her crush’s dead lover, unaware that the crush and her lover’s wife have used his body to ferry drugs. Farcical, yes, but not the prison sentence of sixty years that is handed out to Tookie. However, it is commuted in about eight years and she gets a chance at a new life.She finds a job at a bookstore and marries an old friend.

In November 2019, Flora, a frequent customer of the bookstore, dies and begins to haunt the place and its people, especially Tookie. The book is an account of how Tookie grapples with the ghost, whose demands for attention grow stronger day by day, while also struggling to confront events from the past that are hounding her.

The haunting, then, is on several planes. Tookie has to come to terms with the fact that she stole a dead person, that her legacy as an Indigenous American puts her at a great disadvantage (“Native Americans are the most oversentenced people currently imprisoned. I love statistics because they place what happens to a scrap of humanity, like me, on a worldwide scale”), the fact of her disturbed childhood and youth, of her mother’s death, of racial inequities, of America’s settlers’ injustices towards its original inhabitants, ofGeorge Floyd and of Covid.

At the beginning, the writing veers back and forth between blunt, irreverent, even flippant, and great beauty and sensitivity. “We reached out and clutched fingers, the way women do, transmitting emotion to each other via ragged nails. Mara was interestingly cogent for one who did not know what to do with a body.” Tookie, who once used to drive a grocery van, would “wear the fruit”, fails to thank her attorney because “he was in a world with no addresses” by the time she is freed, thinks that a beautiful green fly with “eyelash arms” that lands on her wrist is a symbol of all that would never be hers again – “common uncommon beauty, ecstasy, surprise”.

There is a sense of kinship between the indigenous people with the Black Lives Matter protests that revive after the 2020 killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, where the book is set. That, and the emergence of the virus, makes the book heavier but no less compelling to read in its descriptions of protests and protocols, their concomitant beauty and ugliness. The bookstore job becomes hers only because she read with “murderous attention”, “with a force that resembled insanity” in prison, says Tookie.

The Sentence is a paean to books, to how they can be a coping mechanism in turbulent times and the source of much restorative power. Books were not “dry paper but living assembly”, they were “essential” and so bookstores could do mail-order business during the lockdown and people could be rescued with books. Even killed by them, like Flora, who turns into a ghost because of what she reads in the book. That, and how she is got rid of, gives the book its mystery arc.

“How much do we owe the dead?” Tookie wonders. Gratitude, acknowledgement, forgiveness, reparation, justice? What are the words that appease Flora, make her leave?

Against this framework come to the fore important themes and questions: How does one sincerely, and not as a token gesture, acknowledge and atonefor the oppression of the Indigenous people? How can the Indigenous people, who have “endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture” hold their own?

The book moves from absurd theft to grim pandemic to sweet relief, making book recommendations, arguing for the continuation and support of independent bookstores, and peppering the pages with interesting characters, who to some extent or the other, also have to deal with their own hauntings. I have to say it was not entirely clear to me why Tookie was frightened to confront what was ultimately revealed, given that she neither hates nor loves Flora and has mixed feelings towards her. Is it because “shame strengthens rather than fades with time”? The reading seemed to get scattered towards the latter half but manages to coalesce together soon enough.

The author, who has won the Pulitzer Prize for her novel The Night Watchman in 2021, and her bookstore play a cameo in the novel. There is even a playlist of ghostbusting songs that Tookie puts together. And while a book mention or recommendation is never very far away, the author makes it easier for the reader by giving a list at the end.

This is one of the earliest books about “a year that sometimes seemed like the beginning of the end. A slow tornado”. One cannot but help note that we are still living amidst one, the third, to some degree or the other, expecting another wave to surge some time or the other. Would this year at least, to put it in the author’s words “be the now where we save our place, your place, on earth”?

(Sravanthi is an independent writer and editor based in Chennai.)

About the Book

Book title: The Sentence

Author: Louise Erdrich

Publisher: Corsair; Distributor: Hachette

Price: ₹646; 400 pages (paperback)

Check out the book on Amazon

Published on June 01, 2022
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