“And so we sat there. Two haunted women. And one unhaunted baby trailing clouds of glory.”
The Sentence is the latest novel from Louise Erdrich, a prolific, Pulitzer prize-winning author of Ojibwe descent. It is a sprawling work that chronicles main character Tookie’s journey from one-time body smuggler who wanted to impress a girl and earn $26,000 to incarcerated person to bookstore employee and wife. While The Sentence sells itself as a ghost story and is certainly not lacking in the ghost department, it is primarily a pandemic story, illustrating how the onset of COVID-19 affects Tookie, her husband and her stepdaughter as well as her family of bookstore co-workers. A lot of real estate in the book, which takes place in Minneapolis, is taken up by the violent aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, which Erdrich uses to highlight the integrity of Native and Black solidarity: “We have to stand with Black people because we know. The MPD has fucking done this to Indians since the beginning of this city. No, before that. They practiced on us in the Dakota war and ever since.”
The strongest point of this novel is how well-defined the characters are, how fleshy they feel. Erdrich’s writing is rich and very detailed. The abundance of detailing at times feels random, with seemingly inessential pieces of information thrown into various scenes in a way that does not feel entirely thought out, but the overall effect of this strategy is a cast of characters that are, for the most part, deeply understood. For the majority of the novel’s 372 pages, the reader exists as Tookie, a woman with “a dinosaur heart, cold, massive, indestructible, a thick meaty red. And…a glass heart, tiny and pink, that can be shattered.” We also meet Pollux, her husband, a former tribal police officer turned indigenous ceremony leader, and Flora, the white woman who so badly wants to claim indigeneity that her spirit haunts the bookstore and Tookie herself for a full year after her death. Even in death, Flora will go to extreme lengths in her effort to wear an indigenous skin: “She enlarged the opening in my back, pressing, twisting, tearing me open and going deeper until both hands found my heart and tried to wring it like a rag.” Her character provides a fascinating exploration of the American fetishization of native people and their culture, showcasing the modern commodification and romanticization of indigeneity that has developed from generations of institutionalized genocide.
Erdrich thoughtfully uses food both to express how Tookie and her family care for each other and to illustrate that food is an essential staple of native cultures. “I put my hand to my heart like I was pledging allegiance — maybe to everything in our home. There was a delicious scent. Pollux was browning chunks of squash with onions and garlic.” Here, Erdrich gives readers a simple scene that unpacks a heavy facet of the American indigenous experience: a deep-rooted sense of disconnect from the national identity, forced on them long ago. She also, however, highlights the joy and resilience that stem from the fierce love of a culture that many have tried to exterminate. Erdrich does this repeatedly throughout the text, describing with loving detail how Tookie prepares some trout that Pollux has just caught, using herbs she grew herself, even giving a simple recipe for scorched corn soup with cannellini beans and cream. These intimate, homey scenes are juxtaposed with reflections on commodity food — the food distributed to tribes by the US government, the food Pollux ate growing up, the food similar to what Tookie was fed in prison. She reflects that “these were the foods of forgetfulness” and that she was “soon overtaken by oblivion.” Though the commodity food program was helpful in making sure native people living on reservations got enough to eat, the surplus of low-quality, generic food contributed to people feeling separated from their ancestors and traditions. Yet again showing joy and resilience at the same time as hardship, Tookie asks Pollux if he ever forgot himself through the surplus of government food. He says, “We ate government commodities, sure, but we had our recipes. We made that stuff ours. And we had food, which is the thing…Noko grew squash, corn, all that. We had a garden.” In showing the intimacies of indigenous food traditions, Erdrich shows the damage that the generic, mass-produced Western food culture has had on people, indigenous and non-indigenous alike.
Though the story and characters in The Sentence are thoroughly compelling, it does not prevent the novel from feeling like Erdrich perhaps started to write a ghost story, experienced the onset of the pandemic, and attempted to shift the little universe she created within this book to accommodate it. The ghost and pandemic plotlines feel disjointed at times, as does Erdrich’s choice to write herself into the novel as a minor character called Louise. Strangely, Louise is one of the characters that feels the least developed; not much about her is revealed outside of a love for books and writing. Despite the disjointedness, The Sentence tells a beautiful story that is joyful, heartbreaking, anger-inducing, and uplifting all at once. And though for many people it may feel too soon to reopen the too-fresh wounds left by the trauma of the pandemic and George Floyd’s murder, this book is worth your time.
This review is based on an uncorrected proof.
Ella Nielsen is an English literature and food studies major from California who works as a farmer and line cook. She likes picnics, complicated baking projects, and strong black tea with milk.