By Ellen Akins Star Tribune
I guess you could call Louise Erdrich’s “The Sentence” a ghost story, though it does imply a certain creepy creepiness that the book doesn’t possess. But there are plenty of ghosts, and one in particular certainly scares the novel’s Ojibwe narrator, Tookie, whose nickname seems like a fast, badass version of her character.
At the beginning, Tookie tells us that he was in prison for 10 years for what seems to be an almost slapstick crime, committed when “for many reasons, I still didn’t know who I was. Now that I have a better idea, I’ll tell you this: I’m an ugly woman. Well, she’s so much more than that, and much of “The Sentence” is devoted to figuring out what that is.
Practically, this endeavor is aided by the fact that Tookie spent his time in prison reading voraciously, a learning frenzy started with books provided by his “seventh grade teacher in the school on the reservation”, Jackie, who happens to work at a Minneapolis bookstore specializing in Native literature, where Tookie finds employment.
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This unnamed bookstore closely resembles a Minneapolis bookstore owned by Erdrich, not least because its owner, Louise, is a writer who is going on a book tour just as the pandemic takes hold, around the same time Erdrich reportedly promoted his latest novel, “The Night Watchman”, winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize.
The nature of the bookstore and its predominantly indigenous staff attract a certain type of clientele, curious and budding Indians; one of the most egregious of them, Tookie’s “most annoying favorite client”, is Flora, who claimed to have an Indian great-grandmother and recently died with, as her adopted daughter explains, ” that open book next to her… implying she didn’t have time to use a bookmark.
This book, an antique bound journal titled “The Sentence: An Indian Captivity 1862-1883”, comes into Tookie’s hands and continues to haunt her almost as vigorously as Flora’s persistent and aggressive ghost. Why this is, and what it has to do with Tookie’s troubled life story and identity, is what “The Sentence” is primarily about, although what constitutes an identity in general and in particular is the larger issue that runs through the novel. “I truly believe that to live inauthentically is to live in some kind of hell,” says one of Tookie’s colleagues – but figuring out what’s authentic can also be somewhat hellish, it seems.
Having clearly been written in the midst of events beyond its characters – the coronavirus and then the eruption of the Twin Cities following the murder of George Floyd – the book has a sometimes disconcerting you-are-there quality that can seem out of step with the the story itself, though the events amplify the novel’s themes of social and personal connection and dissociation, and historical crimes and contemporary, micro and overt assaults, perpetrated in the name of white supremacy.
What holds it all together here, rightly in a novel much of which takes place in a bookstore, is the connection made by reading, and one of the great charms of “The Sentence” for an avid reader is the current book commentary—recommendations, judgments, quotes, even, at the end, a “Totally Biased List” of Tookie’s favorites. As she tells us: “The door is open. Go!”
Ellen Akins is a writer, editor, critic and teacher in Cornucopia, Wisconsin.