The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 2021.
What follows is less a review and more a scattering of notes on ideas that were important to me in my reading of Erdrich's latest novel, The Sentence.
Following her post-modern pattern of multiple narrators much less than usual, this book has a central narrator, Tookie, an Ojibwe woman who lives with her husband Pollux (what's already not to love when a character has such a name?), also Indigenous. Tookie works in a bookstore clearly modeled on Erdrich's own Birchbark Books in Minneapolis, where much of the book takes place. The real and the literary bookstores both specialize in Native literature and art, and the owner of the novel's bookstore is even named Louise. Louise has mostly cameo but significant appearances in the story. The book definitely made me want to visit the real store, which is totally doable, now that I live in a bordering state.
I've read several recent novels where the coming pandemic is hinted at, but in The Sentence, we are plunged into it full-on with all the confusion we experienced in the beginning about how to protect ourselves. Also in real time are the events surrounding the murder of George Floyd. Meanwhile, a major character in Tookie's narration is dead—a former customer who haunts the bookstore and, specifically Tookie. This is all the summary you're going to get.
The ghost, Flora, is a White wannabe Indian, who fulfills several functions literarily. She serves as a mirror for the Indigenous characters' own identity issues, as she has pasted together an identity from other people's lives in the hope that it will prop up the possibility that she actually is Indigenous. As Penstemon, one of the book sellers, says, "Flora knew there would be a reckoning, that someone… would figure out that she'd pulled together elements of other people's lives to fake her own. The thing is, most of us Indigenous people do have to consciously pull together our identities. We've endured centuries of being erased and sentenced to live in a replacement culture. So even someone raised strictly in their own tradition gets pulled toward white perspectives." Flora is also a mirror for me––a White woman who is still, in my seventies, working out my own identity issues.
In this and other Erdrich novels, she gives space to her own ethnically mixed heritage—Ojibwe, German-American, and French. Not all Indigenous authors who are of mixed heritage do this, or if they do, they seem to want to gloss over the non-Indigenous side of who they are. As someone who is culturally but not ethnically mixed, I value this in Erdrich. I feel the complexities of my own life are validated by her, even though that's probably not her intention. In The Sentence, Flora's wannabe status and the identity questions the other characters grapple with as a result of her hanging around in life and in death, bring the issues to the fore. In another neat acknowledgement of the non-Native part of the author's heritage, the bookstore employs a young German man, and Erdrich explains why he's important to the store. All the other employees are Indigenous. In another place, Penstemon is thinking of tattooing her body with red and blue lines to protest the Federal Government's blood quantum rules. The red lines would divide up her Ho-Chunk, Hidatsa, Lakota, and Ojibwe portions, and a blue line would delineate her Norwegian area. Tookie asks where she'd put that blue line. She answers, "Around my heart. I really love my mother." And I loved that.
Tookie and Pollux, who have some wonderful, substantial conversations throughout the book, have a conflict over Flora, and their conflict reflects something I think about. Tookie calls Flora a ghost, and Pollux, influenced by his Indigenous ways, doesn't want to hear it. Throughout the haunting they've been dancing around the subject because of it. There's this lovely conversation between Tookie and Jackie, one of the bookstore employees:
'He won't tolerate talk of ghosts and supernatural business, will he,' said Jackie.
'He said "otherworldly" so he's on guard against himself,' I said. 'He won't talk about that stuff, but he'll talk about the next life. He's setting one up for the both of us.'
'You've got a good husband. How does he go about setting it up?'
'He's pretty much using songs and stories, maybe some work with pipes and feathers.'
'He's a sort of spiritual carpenter.'
I love that idea—a spiritual carpenter.
It was in Minneapolis that George Floyd was murdered by a policeman, setting off huge protests around the world but especially there where the book is set. In this story there is a wonderful sense of community embedded in the protests. Tookie mentions the flags representing different groups that have come together––BLM and Pan African flags, AIM flags, rainbow flags. And true to what I've experienced of traditional Indigenous gatherings, it's the grandmothers who "were putting out the call for us to work with our tobacco, sing healing songs. Now jingle dancers were gathering at the George Floyd memorial." Grandmothers lead. Grandmothers call. Maybe I especially like this because I'm becoming a grandmother, and I hope I can lead now and then for the good.
The Sentence by Louise Erdrich. Harper, 2021.