When she isn’t writing bestselling novels that explore Native American life, Louise Erdrich runs a bookstore in Minneapolis that sells Native literature and art. Her latest book, “The Sentence,” combines her interest in both in a shaggy-dog ghost story that unfolds over a year in a city scarred by the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd.
Most of the novel is narrated by a woman known at first only as Tookie, who, in the space of 30 pages, goes from being a drinking, drugging Native outlaw to a “bookish nerd” devoted to her husband, Pollux, a former tribal police officer who helped send her away to prison but now makes designer furniture in their gentrifying neighborhood. Tookie credits her somewhat head-spinning transformation to “the most important skill I’d gained in prison… how to read with murderous attention” — a talent that also lands her a job at a Native-run bookstore that bears a striking resemblance to Erdrich’s own Birchbark Books.
By the second chapter we’ve been introduced to the ghost of Flora, a devoted reader and loyal customer who, when she was alive, yearned to identify as Native to atone for the sins of her white timber baron ancestors. Her spectral visits to the store — and her murky origins— upend Tookie’s life, at least temporarily, and shed light on her own troubled family history. In a larger sense all of the major characters in the novel are haunted by the ghosts of American history, including centuries of racially motivated violence and hatred.
Erdrich, one of the most gifted writers in the country, whose 2020 novel “The Night Watchman” won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, does many things well in this book — it is filled with vivid characters, naturalistic dialogue, and startlingly beautiful descriptions of babies and the natural world.
But it often feels as if she has written three or four separate sagas — a bookseller’s memoir, a family drama centered on Tookie, Pollux and their adopted daughter; a convoluted, overly symbolic ghost story; and a diaristic account of the early days of the COVID-19 lockdown and aftermath of Floyd’s murder — and smushed them together in one novel.
According to the epigraph, from the Minneapolis-based Korean American poet Sun Yung Shin, “From the time of birth to the time of death, every word you utter is part of one long sentence.” If that is true, then “The Sentence” still deserves consideration because notwithstanding its flaws, it is an inextricable part of this brilliant writer’s “one long sentence” and life’s work.